Factory workers test labour freedoms

Factory workers in Burma have become the first to test the limits of labour freedoms in the country following new laws that allow union formation for the first time in nearly half a century.

An application was last week handed to the labour ministry in Naypyidaw for the creation of a Cotton and Leather Factory Labourers’ Union. The ministry needs to approve the formation of unions before they are made official.

Around 70 people have signed up to join, according to the union’s secretary, San Kyaw, among whom are legal experts and labour representatives. Its main goal, he says, is to demand higher salaries than the 40,000 kyat ($US50) the group’s members are paid on average each month, despite regularly working 12 hour days.

“We aim to achieve all full privileges and rights for the labourers as provided in the [union] law” passed in October, San Kyaw said. “We will work until we die to improve the life of young workers in our country, ensuring their welfare and well-being into the future.”

The US State Department puts the minimum wage for day labourers in Burma at around 50 kyat a day, although lack of enforcement of labour regulations in the country means employers have a degree of flexibility over salaries for their workers.

Average annual wages in Burma hover at around $400 a year. Decades of military rule means that Burma remains Southeast Asia’s poorest economy, despite a wealth of natural resources.

The passing of the labour law brings to an end the draconian 1962 Trade Unions Act that effectively banned all trade unions in the country. The bill allows for the formation of unions with a minimum size of 30 people, which members can join or leave of their own desire.

Burmese workers can now also legally go on strike, with the proviso that if they work in the private sector they give three days notice, and if in a public utility, 14 days. Protests for workers’ rights can go ahead as long as they do not block transport or security infrastructure.

The bill allows for the formation of unions with a minimum size of 30 people, which members can join or leave of their own desire. Workers can legally go on strike and protest for workers’ rights as long as it does not block transport or security infrastructure.

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