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Employers have refused to budge on demands made by workers at a shoe factory in Rangoon whose strike, now in its second week, has once again drawn attention to poor labour conditions in Burma.
Officials from the government’s labour department yesterday attempted to mediate between strikers and the owners of the Taiyi shoe factory. Around 2,000 people have halted work in protest at low salaries and wages deducted during the five-day Chinese New Year holiday in January, which employees say they were forced to take against their will.
But reports suggest the workers have decreased some of their demands, including for a 175 kyat ($US0.20) per hour pay rise. They are now demanding wages of 100 kyat per hour, up from the current rate of 75 kyat, but employees have agreed to only 85 kyat. That would equate to around $US250 a year, were they to work a six-day week, but the Tai Yi owners stipulate that employees cannot work on public holidays.
Labour activist Su Su Nway, who has on several occasions visited the site of the strike in Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone, said the workers may have buckled to pressure.
“I learnt today that the workers are already in a hot water – some of them had to go back home to grab money as they have been absent a lot [and not received their wages],” she said, adding that the owners had stopped free transport and so workers were forced to walk to the factory. “We are sad to see them suffering a lot,” said Su Su Nway.
Burmese President Thein Sein last year passed into law a bill granting workers freedom to strike and form labour unions, described at the time as a “massive move for the country” by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The bill brought to an end the draconian 1962 Trade Unions Act that effectively banned all trade unions in the country. Burmese workers can now legally go on strike, with the proviso that if they work in the private sector they give three days notice, and if in a public utility, 14 days.
The new law however includes severe penalties for employers who breach its regulations, including a ban on the dismissal of “a worker for his membership in a labour organisation for the exercise of organisational activities or participating in a strike in accordance with the law.”
Employers face a fine of up to 100,000 kyat ($US120) or up to a year in prison if they breach the legislation.
It is not clear whether the Tai Yi workers abided by the new regulations. The ILO has in the past spearheaded campaigns to educate Burmese about their rights, but it is questionable whether employees in low-skilled industries such as factory work are yet fully aware of the finer detail of the new bill.