New law gives Burmese right to strike

A new labour law signed this week by Burma’s president is a “massive move for the country”, which has long been beset by severe restrictions on the rights to strike and unionise, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Deputy Labour Minister Myint Thein confirmed to DVB today that President Thein Sein had passed the labour organisation bill into law “the day before yesterday [and] after 14 days it can be implemented for labour organisation”.

The passing of the law brings to an end the draconian 1962 Trade Unions Act that effectively banned all trade unions in the country. Burmese workers can now 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.

Speaking to DVB before the bill received the president’s signature, Steve Marshall, the country director for the ILO, said that “we have to say it is a massive move for the country in terms of the social development, and frankly, economic development.

“You don’t join unions to simply be in a club – you join unions for collective bargaining and proper economic management of the labour market.”

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.

Unions will have to register with a national registrar appointed by the President, a condition that has caused some concern for the exiled Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB), although Marshall noted that this was common in other countries.

“It will help us get more benefits for the economy because our labour organisation law means they can organise according to their will and our government transparency will attract foreign countries and therefore FDI [foreign direct investment] can flow freely,” Myint Thein told DVB.

The bill however includes severe penalties for employers who breach its regulations, including a ban on the dismissal of “a worker for his membership in a labour organisation for the exercise of organisational activities or participating in a strike in accordance with the law.”

If an employer breaches such legislation, they could “on conviction”, face a fine of up to 100,000 kyat ($US120) or up to a year in prison, or both.

Workers in essential services however will not legally be allowed to go on strike, or if the strike is deemed to have endangered the health or life of people

Such laws will obviously hinge on the judiciary, which has arguably failed in upholding laws designed to protect children from, among other things, conscription into the military, despite Burma’s ratification of the UN convention on the rights of the child. One stumbling block is the military’s immunity from prosecution in a civilian court, which is guaranteed in the 2008 constitution.

However, Myint Thein asserted that “we must implement by the labour organisation rules; after that we can implement according to the laws.”

Marshall continued: “As in every other country there will be unions associated with political groupings” which, he said, would be normal and expected “as long as there is no pressure being placed on people to join particular unions.” As a result the ILO believes that educating workers on their rights will be important.

The bill has already passed in Burma’s two national parliaments after being submitted to the upper house on 29 August after drafting ended.

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