Nothing Easy About Organizing Unions in Myanmar

IMG_0101Yangon  Not surprisingly, the more people we visit, the more we peel the onion and come closer to understanding the full challenges for workers and their unions in organizing in Burma.  Over the first three days of meetings for example when talking to labor sources the union density has fallen from 2% or roughly 250,000 members to .8% or about 100,000 members in the 13 million workforce to only ½ of 1% or about 60,000 members from yet another source.  The surest consensus we can find is that in the brief time since the new 2012 labor code, unions have made progress, but have a long way to go over a hard road.

On Sunday, workers finally have a day off from what we soon learned was 11-hour days, six days a week.   We met with 50 of them in a training center run by the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB) in the industrial zone where there are perhaps 800 factories employing tens of thousands of workers.  Many of this very young workforce of women also lived in worker dormitories near where they worked so having a chance to talk union, gain skills, and strategize about how to win wage increases was worth some time on their off day.  Hardly a year before the FTUB was classified by the government as a “terrorist” organization, but since the new labor code was enacted, they were now registered and had gained more than 16600 members, half of them in farmers’ locals and the other half spread out in a half dozen sectors, the largest of which was the industrial area where they had more than 5500 members with 1300 in the New Age Shoe company alone, where many of the women with us now worked.   Dues were 200 kyat or about $0.20 per month, and the organizing was largely by member referrals and by the executive committee members of the locals, including the New Age Shoe board, all of whom had been fired for their success.

Most of the issues were about wages.  Myanmar is known to the have the lowest garment worker wages in the world.  Most of the employers are Korean and Taiwanese subcontractors for some of the biggest companies anywhere.  There is still no minimum wage in Myanmar.  Some workers told us of making $7 per month as security workers or $18 per month in the factories.  The union has won base wages of 35000 kyat or about $35 per month which with overtime and bonuses for perfect attendance can reach 70 or 80,000 kyat.   The union is proposing a minimum wage of 80,000 kyat for 8-hours as base wages.  Discrimination in hiring seems everywhere.  These are the NFL players of the industrial class.   They come into the factories with half an education from the Mandalay delta and elsewhere in the countryside at 13 and it is a miracle if they are still able to hang on by 35. Their lives are bent to the wheel.  They want the overtime, since most send the money home.  Contacts are made by referrals from other members.  A new FTUB strategy around targeting puts their activists at tea shops where they want to organize making contacts until they have a committee of 7 or 8 and can begin secretly forming a union with 13.  Like unions everywhere, 10% may be enough by law, but they were clear they waited for a majority to make their move.  Strikes were regular and effective – all hands were raised when I asked who had been on a strike – but the government now limited them to a maximum of 5 days.

Later as the rain poured outside on the last of the rainy season, we met several kilometers away with the WSLB, the Worker Solidarity League of Burma and listened to each of the women there introduce themselves.  So many of the stories echoed that told to us earlier by a young woman who was now 23 and had already worked in the factory for 10 years, who was virtually in tears as she talked to us about how much she wished she could also be educated as well.

These women were machine parts.   Their organizations were giving them voice, and their voices were eager and demanding, but the new law and the limited resources makes the task before them both essential and daunting.

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