A group of Asian trade unions and workers associations has condemned a little-known ‘decree’ made in Burma on 20 August.
The decree proposed to fire any workers participating in industrial action and further ‘blacklist’ them. The meeting to pen the regulation was apparently attended by heads of industry and military personnel, including Lt-Gen Myint Swe.
The statement from the group of organisations said that “the reason for the decree, labour activists in Burma believe, is that the junta wants to prevent further industrial action and employers don’t want their workers taking action to demand better wages, so now they can fire those who protest and stop them from getting jobs elsewhere.”
Amongst the condemning groups was the Working People’s Association of Indonesia, the Network of Progressive Youth Burma, All Nepal Federation of Trade Unions and the Malaysian Socialists, amongst others.
However the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Steve Marshall told DVB that he had approached the government regarding the decree, who seemingly denied the existence of any such legislation. “In terms of that apparent order, I did raise it with the government, in terms of discussions that have been taking place on freedom of association and I’m advised very strongly that no such order exists”.
Moe Swe of the Yaung Chi Oo Worker’s Association told DVB that “I think its to do with the election, the government don’t want any strikes before the elections.”
With apparent provisions in the 2008 constitution protecting the right of association along with inevitably vague provisos against causing ‘public disturbances’, there will be a need for new laws governing workers’ rights, or indeed space, according to the constitution, at least for greater freedom of association.
“Within the constitution there is the provision for freedom of association and the right to be represented for workers, and the government has already indicated their intention to draft new trade union legislation for presentation to the new parliament,” Marshall said.
“They have already had initial discussions with ILO staff in Geneva on that subject…the important thing is not only the content of the constitution but the legislation that is put into place to apply a constitution and from what we understand at the present time the government are working on legislation.”
Such talks have lead to suspicions that the government would try the proverbial tactic of forming a ‘national union’, a tactic used by General Ne Win, Burma’s first dictator, and by autocratic regimes elsewhere. It misses the corporatist or inherent necessity for smaller units of organisation in a realistic economy that are needed when advocating between workers and those in power.
All this follows industrial action in March this year when workers demanded days off for public holidays and decent wages. Wages for factory workers in Rangoon are said to hover just over a dollar a day, the roughly defined international poverty line, and deplorable working conditions are the norm.
These actions were described as “nothing new” by Marshall, who, despite many voices describing Burma as an extremely oppressive working environment, sounded a note of “cautious optimism” regarding future legislation.
After the March protests, concerted calls for the military to allow the formation of unions were made. These however were denied by the government who stated that industrial action was ‘punishable‘ and publication of materials calling for workers rights punishable under draconian press laws.
The military did however seemingly back down over a significant case involving farmers in Aunglan, in Magwe division, in which 20,000 acres of farmers land was seized after they refused to grow sugar cane.
The ILO intervened and those helping the farmers, including prominent lawyer Pho Phyu, were released early from the lengthy prison sentences they were given simply for assisting the farmers.
In any case, labour associations and unions will be one group that the junta will be keen to insulate themselves from, especially given their history of agitation that goes back to the colonial days when workers were instrumental in protesting colonial rule.
However under former dictator Ne Win’s ignominious ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’, all trade unions were effectively banned and practices such as forced labour, human trafficking and terrible working conditions have since pushed Burmese in their millions to the sweat shops, brothels and construction sites of neighbouring countries.
Workers themselves and those concerned for their basic rights will be keeping a wary eye on developments, especially regarding the elections.