Twelve people were arrested on Saturday for their involvement in a workers’ rights demonstration in Mandalay. Among those arrested were ten protest leaders and two negotiators.
Several hundred employees of the Chinese-owned Lucky Treasure woodcutting factory in Sinkkaing Township, accompanied by hundreds of supporters, were intercepted by about 500 police officers as they tried to march to Mandalay, according to the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB).
The demonstration was the latest of four strikes at the factory, beginning in June 2012. Aung Linn, chairman of the FTUB, said that workers at the factory have had ongoing disagreements with management over problematic contracts.
“There were about four strikes,” he said. “The first one lasted half a day on 17 June, 2012, when the workers were asking to have a holiday on Sundays. The second time, Khine Min, a labour union leader, was arrested for two weeks.”
Aung Lin explained that the situation escalated in March 2014 when the factory owners broke an agreement with employees. This time, he said, workers were unhappy with contract renewals proposed by management. The new contracts would require all employees to undergo a three-month probationary period at the start of the term, regardless of how long they have worked there. The new agreement also gives management the right to arbitrarily terminate employment, he said.
Union leaders also said that as a result of the unrest, the Border Affairs Ministry deployed 28 administrators to pressure the workers to quit their jobs.
“Authorities pressured the workers,” said Thet Htun Aung of FTUB. “They arrested our leaders they threatened us, they approached workers’ families and told them to accept compensation and leave their jobs or the military would dismantle their protest site”.
Thet Htun Aung added that 14 workers accepted money from the authorities and abandoned their jobs.
The detained activists each face three charges, including violation of Article 505(b) of Burma’s penal code. The article has often been used to punish activists under the sweeping premise of intent to cause fear or alarm among civilians.
Trade unions are still finding their footing in Burma. Enactment of the Labour Organisation Law in October 2011 gave citizens the right to form unions of more than 30 members for the first time in decades. The law repealed the draconian Trade Unions Act of 1962, which wholly outlawed unionisation.