Sewing discord

Escalating garment factory strikes in Rangoon have needled a nervous ruling regime.

Ba Kaung

MOSTLY young women, they work long hours to produce luxury clothing for the world's well-heeled. And they're fed up.

Significantly, in this politically charged election year, Rangoon's textile factory workers are resorting to industrial action to back their increasingly clamorous demands for better pay and conditions of employment. The majority of the striking workers are women.

Although the ruling regime usually assigns a Labour Ministry official to mediate, negotiations are held in an atmosphere of menace, with armed riot-control troops deployed at the scene of the strike. Soldiers in riot gear find themselves confronted by women whose most provocative action is to bang their lunch boxes with metal spoons to reinforce their demands.

It's clear that workers are being pushed into industrial action by rising living costs and declining labour conditions, yet the regime is evidently worried that the protests could turn political.

Aung Thaung, the Minister of Industry (1) and a powerful regime hardliner, recently voiced concern that the strikes could escalate into a political movement, saying the government would not turn a blind eye to issues that would affect the 'security and stability of the country'.

The Burmese regime has a notorious record of dealing harshly with striking workers - notably in June 1974 when at least 23 workers died in clashes with security forces trying to break up their strike in support of demands for better pay and working conditions.

Ironically, industrial unrest helped bring about Burma's independence, after a famous 1938 uprising by petroleum industry employees laid the foundation for the countrywide anti-colonial movement.

This year, in three weeks of industrial unrest from mid-February to early March, strikes were held in at least 20 garment factories on the outskirts of Rangoon, according to an official of the Myanmar [Burma] Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA) in Rangoon.

Sometimes, the women score small successes. When 2,000 workers staged a sit-in in early February at a garment factory in the Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone, about 11 km from downtown Rangoon, they won a monthly raise of 5,000 kyat ($5) - despite the intimidating presence of hundreds of riot-control troops to keep order.

The raise was still only half what the strikers demanded and yet it represented a small victory for labour rights in a country where unions are banned and out-of-date labour laws are largely ignored by employers.

Burma's Factories Act of 1951 and a 1964 law on Fundamental Workers' Rights set a six-day, 44-hour week for private sector employees. Yet thousands of Burmese factory workers toil at their machines for up to 100 hours a week.

Shwe Zin, 30, worked in various garment factories for 16 hours a day, often for seven days a week, until she found a better-paying job in a family-run tailor shop.

Her last factory job paid her 35,000 kyat ($35) a month. 'I couldn't survive on that, so I quit,' she said.

'I had to work from 7am until 11pm. I tried to steal a few minutes' sleep or just sit down, but if I was caught doing that on duty my pay was cut.'

Thet Naing was employed as a supervisor in a Pegu Township factory where the work day ran from 7.30am until 11pm.

When he led a 1997 sit-in in support of demands for better pay and compensation for injuries sustained in the workplace, he was arrested and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.

Thet Naing accused factory owners of bribing Labour Ministry officials and local authorities to turn a blind eye to violations of the labour laws.

'Like those in the gambling businesses in our country, factory owners bribe the Labour Ministry officials and the local authorities if they wish to keep running on public holidays,' he claimed. 'The Labour Ministry people are often former army officers.'

Foreign interests also seem to be largely blind to the exploitation of Burmese garment workers.

A 2009 study of the Burmese garment industry by a Japanese researcher, Toshihiro Kudo, found that in March 2005 nearly one-third of the 142 garment-making companies in Burma had foreign equity. Of these 45 companies, 31 were wholly owned by foreign entities, nine were joint ventures with military-related firms and five were joint ventures with private firms.

Kudo's study reported that in 2008 Japan was Burma's biggest customer for garments, buying 34% of the country's output. Japan was followed by Germany, Spain, Britain and South Korea.

In interviews conducted at eight garment firms in Rangoon in April 2008, Kudo found that average wages of Burmese workers were lower than the Cambodian minimum monthly wage of $50 for garment and footwear workers in Phnom Penh. The salaries of middle management and engineers in Burma were also found to be lower than in Cambodia.

Myint Soe, the chairman of MGMA, said garment workers in Cambodia and Vietnam are now earning 'at least $120 a month', while employees in Burmese factories made a monthly $30-50.

Myint Soe said the recent spate of strikes at Burmese factories was partly sparked by the regime's decision in January to award government employees an extra 20,000 kyat ($20) per month.

Factory owners found it difficult to increase workers' pay because of the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis, while a soaring cost of living put the squeeze on workers, Myint Soe said. Sanctions imposed by the US, once Burma's biggest market for garments, also seriously hit the garment industry and caused unemployment, he said.

'The US did it in good faith, but now it realises that it is not good for our people,' he said.

Myint Soe said he hopes that workers' rights will improve after this year's general election.

'The Constitution guarantees us the right of free association,' he said. 'While Burma lacks labour unions there will continue to be exploitation in the workplace.'

The International Labour Organisation's executive director, Kari Tapiola, who held talks with Burmese regime officials in January, told The Irrawaddy that one of Burma's most fundamental issues was the complete absence of a legally functioning workers' organisation.

Observers are asking whether the current series of strikes could have a significant effect on the military regime's preparations for the election - and perhaps even lead to an improvement in working conditions when a new government takes power. 

This article is reproduced from The Irrawaddy (April 2010).

*Third World Resurgence No. 236, April 2010, pp 35-36