About 20 former employees of the now defunct Master Sports footwear factory were injured during a standoff with police after they held an official captive at the facility on Tuesday.
A group of workers came to the Rangoon factory on 16 September to negotiate with representatives of the Department of Labour, which was tasked with carrying out an August court ruling that the workers should receive compensation for sudden dismissal.
The group became irate when the labour department’s Director General Win Shein was unable to provide exact information about when and how the workers would be paid. A worker told DVB that the official said only that the workers will be paid after the factory is auctioned off on 9 October.
The workers then decided to stay at the factory in what they called a “sit-in”, and said that they would not let the official out of their sight until he gave them an absolute date for their payment.
Police arrived on the scene later in the day to remove Win Shein, ultimately leading to a physical skirmish between police and the group of workers.
Tun Naing, a labour organiser, insisted that Win Shein was not taken captive, and that the police presence caused tensions to boil over.
“Police came in to forcefully extract Win Shein, further upsetting the workers,” said Tun Naing. “They weren’t holding him hostage; they were only staging a sit-in, refusing to leave his sight until he gives them an answer.”
Lawyer U Htay, who specialises in settling labour disputes, said that three of the workers were hospitalised for their injuries at the site. While the situation got out of hand on Tuesday, he said, the root of the problem is an inadequate system for settling disputes.
“Ideally, labour disputes would be handled swiftly through relevant departments. Otherwise disagreements can easily lead to undesirable situations like this one, where workers end up getting hurt,” he said.
U Htay added that the Master Sports employees have tried official channels to settle the problem. While the labour department has ruled in their favour, he said that extensive delays have left the workers “desperate”.
“They end up in this type of situation because they are not earning money to pay for food and daily living expenses,” he said.
More than 750 mostly female workers were dismissed by the factory’s South Korean management when the facility was suddenly shut down in late June.
The company’s owner and his affiliates are still at large, as they left the country shortly after shutting down the factory.
The employees, who claim they were not given advance notice of the closure, received assistance from the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security to seek legal recourse. The ministry eventually brokered a deal through with the help of the South Korean embassy whereby the company agreed to offer one month’s pay as severance; however only 56 of the 755 dismissed workers accepted the package.
Workers protested at the South Korean embassy in July to demand additional compensation. They later claimed the company had coerced some employees into signing predatory agreements relinquishing severance.
Burma’s labour ministry came to the workers’ defense in a previously unheard of lawsuit against the missing foreign managers, and the Rangoon Division Labour Tribunal ruled in favour of the workers in August.
The labour department was designated to carry out disbursement of funds, but no deadline has yet been set and the dismissed workers say the months without pay have caused severe hardship.