Workers’ Rights Improving, but Problems Remain

By Simon Roughneen 29 April 2013

RANGOON — A year after the enactment of Burma’s labor organization and freedom of association laws, local and international workers’ rights activists say more must be done to support the newfound freedoms in practice.

Addressing a forum of several hundred trade union leaders and labor activists in Rangoon on Monday, International Labor Organization (ILO) Deputy Director-General Gregory Vines said that although the passing of the new laws and the revival of Burma’s long-suppressed labor movement was positive, he added that “there have been some issues around the laws and their enforcement.”

Despite the new laws, and Burma’s wider political liberalization, in practice workers’ rights to form or join unions have not been fully recognized by Burmese officials or businesspeople, activists say.

Speaking on the sidelines of the forum, independent Rangoon regional parliamentarian Nyo Nyo Thinn told The Irrawaddy that she receives regular petitions from constituents complaining about their employers.

“Almost every day I hear a story, often from women, about their working conditions and rights being affected,” said the lawmaker.

“The government needs to do more to ensure the laws are working in practice, and to educate mid-level officials and employers about the law,” she added.

Similarly, US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell referenced reports of workers being fired after joining unions — a signal, he said, that “there is a long way to go to realize in fact the promise now on paper.”

The ambassador acknowledged, however, that the staging of a large gathering of workers’ rights representatives was a sign that Burma is making progress on labor issues.

“It is only a year ago that the labor law was passed and labor organizations began to form,” Mitchell said, adding that the Burmese labor movement “has come a long way” over the past 12 months.

Mentioning last week’s announcement by Acting US Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis that Washington could waive import duties on a selection of Burmese goods, Mitchell linked the prospect of Burma joining the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) to future progress on labor rights. The GSP is a US government mechanism aimed at giving developing countries increased stateside market access.

“Taking tangible steps to give workers their rights is important,” Mitchell said.

Putting rights on paper into practice may take time, however, as industrial relations in Burma slowly re-emerge and develop after a half-century of military rule.

“There has been no real practice of industrial relations here, between government and employers and workers,” said the deputy secretary-general of the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation, Jaap Wienen, who added that Burma’s new labor laws still do not meet international standards.

“There is inadequate protection against anti-union discrimination,” he said.

Not all workers are adequately covered by the now year-old legislation, some activists believe. Ma Sandar Soe, secretary of the Youth Committee of the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB), said people in Burma’s large informal economy remain unprotected.

“Street vendors, trishaw drivers, hawkers — they are needing assistance as well,” she said.

Asked by The Irrawaddy about whether the new labor and freedom of association laws were working as intended, Deputy Labor Minister Myint Thein said several related laws and rules are being drafted or are set to go before Parliament that will further bolster workers’ rights.

“We will submit the Employment and Skill Development Law to Parliament soon,” he said, adding that though minimum wage and social security provisions have been drawn up, they have yet to be finalized.