Myanmar's Workers Exercise Rights To Organize

Political and economic changes in Myanmar have fueled a wave of labor unrest in the country also known as Burma. Myanmar is in the very early stages of industrial development and has some of the lowest wages in the world. Wages are unlikely to reach levels seen elsewhere in the region anytime soon.

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Tens of thousands of workers in Myanmar, also known as Burma, took part in an action this year that until recently could have had very serious consequences - they went on strike. It was maybe the biggest and most sustained act of protest since a nominal civilian government took over last year. Workers were given the right to organize. And they have found that doing so generally works.

Still, industrial development is just beginning, and it's unlikely workers will see wages rise quickly.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn recently travelled to Yangon, Myanmar and sent this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORKERS PROTESTING)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Striking workers are milling around the entrance to the New Way Shoe Factory, a Chinese-invested firm in the Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone just outside the main city of Yangon.

Workers here say they make a basic wage of about 60 cents a day, which they are demanding to be doubled. They complain that they struggle to produce their daily quota of 2,000 leather shoes.

Strike leader Aye Phyo Khing says they barely get any time for bathroom breaks.

AYE PHYO KHING: (Through Translator) The time limit for a toilet break is only 10 minutes. But to walk to the toilets and back takes five minutes. Sometimes we have to line up, which can take more than 10 minutes. We are afraid we may not finish our work, and this causes problems for us.

Ms. Phyo Khing is taking a college correspondence course, and her mostly young, female colleagues chose her to lead them because she's the best educated. Phyo Khing says she's not afraid of being arrested for leading the strike. Her main concern, she says, is that all the labor unrest will scare away foreign investors.

(Through Translator) These strikes happen only once in three or four years. This time, it only happened because we told our bosses we're having difficulties and the negotiations failed. We don't want you to think that workers in Myanmar are always on strike.

KUHN: Even so, state media reported that as of May, more than 36,000 workers from 57 factories, mostly in the Yangon area, had gone on strike. They were emboldened by their government's passage last year of a Labour Organization Law, allowing the creation of unions.

Aung Htoo, a strike leader at another nearby shoe factory, says that a year or so ago, this kind of protest would have been unthinkably dangerous.

AUNG HTOO: (Through Translator) Two or three years ago, if we went on strike like this, the authorities might have taken us away. They prevented and restricted strikes. But now that we are progressing towards democracy, workers can convey their needs to their bosses - within the limits of certain rules and regulations.

KUHN: The workers are inexperienced at negotiating. But a fledgling labor movement is taking shape with political guidance from activists including student leaders of the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations.

Moe Thuzar, a Myanmar expert at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore explains.

MOE THUZAR: In this state of flux where you don't really have formally established unions, political groups like the 88 Generation Students Group, they do fill this important gap in helping mediate the workers' needs, as well as providing some kind of awareness or education.

KUHN: The government is now working on drafting a minimum wage law. But economists note that Myanmar's population is still two thirds rural and poor, and it will take years before this surplus labor is absorbed into the industrial workforce and factory wages start to rise.

Vikram Nehru, an expert on development economics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says that for now, Myanmar must focus on creating jobs.

VIKRAM NEHRU: For the longest time, those real wages do tend to be low. And therefore, countries like Myanmar really must focus on labor-intensive modes of production to ensure that the maximum number of people are employed at real wages that do give them a decent standard of living.

KUHN: Some foreign media reports suggest that multinational companies are racing in to set up factories and hire workers. But Burmese insiders say the reports are exaggerated.

Tint Thwin, Deputy Director General of Trade in Myanmar's Commerce Ministry, says that he's still waiting for the gold rush to materialize.

TINT THWIN: We have a lot of the opportunities in every sector, for example, oil and gas, mineral, mining, hydropower. But still, we are waiting for the investor.

KUHN: An Asian Development Bank official recently offered The Wall Street Journal this sobering prediction: at its current rate of growth, it could take Myanmar 30 years to catch up with its lower-middle income neighbor, Thailand.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

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