Labour union work 'punishable'

Burmese authorities yesterday rejected requests for the formation of an 18-strong labour union and warned that continued union organisation would be punished.

The proposal had been put forward by prominent labour rights lawyer Pho Phyu, who was released from prison three months ago after being sentenced in March last year. He had been advocating on behalf of a group of farmers in central Burma’s Magwe division whose land was confiscated by the military.

Pho Phyu told DVB that he and six others were summoned by the Rangoon police chief on 23 June and told that the union call had been rejected, with officials from the Burmese government’s labour department reportedly citing “international law”.

He added that Rangoon authorities had said following the rejection that if the group published any manifestos or other written material then they would be charge under Burma’s notoriously draconian Press Law. The group, he said, will continue with its work regardless of the threats.

Unions are legally allowed in Burma, although a clause in the 2008 constitution states that their formation is conditioned on not being “contrary to the laws enacted for [Burma’s] security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquillity, or public order and morality”. The subsequent definitions for these criteria are vague.

A member of the Free Trade Union-Burma (FTUB) coalition, Than Lwin, told the International Labour Conference (ILC) a fortnight ago that unions are not being granted the freedom to organize and face continual harassment from the government.

Around 32 labour activists, including eight female FTUB members, are imprisoned in Burma out of a total of more than 2,150 political prisoners. Perceived dissent in Burma is often punished by lengthy jail terms.

A series of strikes that rocked Rangoon in March had been pre-empted by calls for the free formation of trade unions. The focus of much of strike had been directed towards poor working conditions and inadequate pay; the average wage in Burma is less than $US20 a month.

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