Rangoon strikes pre-empt union call

Two more workers’ strikes are set to take place in Rangoon as calls for the legal formation of labour unions in Burma gather momentum.

Despite a media blackout on the protests, the latest of which took place last week at a major Rangoon brewery, unrest appears to have spread around Burma’s former capital.

A strikers’ group has been formed under the unofficial name of the Workers-Farmers Unity League (WFUL) and is demanding that the government ease restrictions on the formation of trade unions.

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.

The WFUL head, Yee Yee Shein, told DVB that the government must follow international standards on workers’ rights. The focus of much of the recent unrest has been targeted towards poor working conditions and inadequate pay. The average wage in Burma in less than $US20 a month.

She said the group was demanding the government “set a minimum wage in accordance with today’s commodity prices”, and warned that the strikes will continue if the situation doesn’t change.

She also slammed the mass privatisation of Burmese industry in recent months and said that the strikes were down to the monopolisation of the country’s economy by cronies of the ruling junta.

The military government has embarked on an aggressive auctioning of industry, with Burmese businessmen the main beneficiaries. Most recently, Rangoon’s electricity sector was sold to Htoo Trading Company, which is owned by junta crony, Tay Za.

A 2000-strong strike led by women at a garment factory in Rangoon last month was greeted by more than 40 riot police trucks, according to eye-witnesses. Although the strike appeared to have ended in some success, with the government agreeing to increase wages, Yee Yee Shein said the promise was not met.

“We demanded 10,000 kyat ($US10) pay raise and [employers] agreed to 5000 kyat ($US5),” she said. “But at the end of the month, they cut money from our pay and we didn’t get any more than before.”

She said that around 500 people yesterday had staged a sit-in protest at the Lucky Shoe factory in Rangoon, while workers at a nearby garment factory had also gone on strike demanding higher wages.

The manager of a clothing business in Rangoon told DVB that the strikes are likely to continue unless the government creates more job opportunities. He added that the recent rumours about a 10-fold hike in electricity prices could also destabilise businesses and foment more unrest.

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