Trade unions claim rights abuses

Trade unions in Burma are not being granted the freedom to organize and face continual harassment from the government, a senior member of a union coalition has told the International Labour Conference (ILC).

But Burma’s deputy labour minister, Tin Htun Aung, dismissed the claims made by Than Lwin, deputy head of the Free Trade Union-Burma (FTUB) grouping, in a report submitted to the ILC prior to the meeting. Than Lwin claimed at the ILC that 32 labour activists remained behind bars in Burma.

“[Tin Htun Aung] said there were no such violations in Burma and that the government didn’t imprison anyone. He said everything was fine in [Burma] and that right now is a very crucial time for the country as the basic constitution is being written.”

Than Lwin said however that “we have all the evidence” of labour abuses, and that Tin Htun Aung’s comments were countered by representatives from eight countries, including India, Indonesia, Japan and France, who attended at the conference.

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 Burmese government signed the Right to Organisation agreement in 1995 and due to this agreement, the formation of labour unions and other organisations should freely be allowed,” said Than Lwin. “But the current military junta denies these rights and has violated the agreement, and people who try to form organisations are arrested and imprisoned.”

The 32 labour activists in Burmese prisons include eight female FTUB members. Than Lwin said the group also urged the ILC to push the Burmese junta to free those in poor health and serving long sentences.

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.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) each year invites member states to send a delegation consisting of two government delegates, an employer delegate, a worker delegate and their respective advisers to the ILC.

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