Five Things … about life in Myanmar and Trade Unions

Myanmar (formerly Burma) has come through the turbulence of its federal election in good stead and there is a bright future for the nation’s young democratic trade union movement if it can harness the new opportunities. This month, Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA Mekong Regional Manager, Sharan KC, shares his observations of the country.


Five Things… About life in Myanmar and Trade Unions

  1. Life in the country has changed a bit for the better since the November 2015 election delivered the first democratic government in 50 years… There is a noticeable difference to life on the streets of Myanmar now, compared to just one year ago. I visited the country in August 2015 and again in August 2016. In 2015 there was a definite sense of excitement for the coming election but also uncertainty over how it would turn out. Myanmar was ruled by a military junta for 50 years, with politically motivated violence and civil unrest a part of life.The atmosphere is a bit calmer in 2016. Of course, there is also a great sense of disappointment because many people voted overwhelmingly for the NLD in the hope that things would get better. The disappointment is understandable because the rate of change has not been as fast as expected, and persecution continues for the Rohingya muslim minority in the Buddhist-dominated country.
  1. Economic development is moving at a rapid pace… The job market is growing, roads are being widened and there is a lot of construction activity. Goods and services are becoming far more available now. The service and hospitality sector and garment and textile industry are growing particularly rapidly and bringing a lot of foreign direct investment. However, the wages and working conditions are not matching with real needs of the very poor of the workforce. Factory workers undertake massive amounts of overtime because they cannot earn a living wage otherwise. The garment and textile workforce is over 70 per cent female and there are high rates of unfair dismissals of pregnant workers and women with children. A lot of women move from rural areas to the city for work and can only afford to live in overcrowded accommodation with co-workers. Sexual harassment at work and in public places is an issue which many women report.
  1. Unions have an opportunity to form and make a difference now… Until 2012 unions were illegal in the country. Even now there are fewer than 100,000 union members in the country, even though there are about 34 million people of working age. However, the election has brought significant change. In August 2015 there was a very heavy security presence. There were armed guards in many public places. When Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA went to meet one of our local partner organisations – Action Labour Rights – we had to be very careful. We had to change our meeting places, meet in shopping centres and be careful not to be seen. Now we can meet more openly.
  1. Unions may be new but activism isn’t…Myanmar has a very long history of political activism. There are young leaders who are committed and are working to galvanise a workers’ movement. They will need some strategic support and careful mentoring. Myanmar’s activism of the past falls into two types – the people who stayed in the country and had to live a life underground and those who left and continued the struggle outside, in places like Australia.
  1. Conscientious consumers may be tempted to boycott clothing that is manufactured in Myanmar due to the poor working conditions. But what Myanmar needs is support.The development of strong, genuine trade unions and social movements that can demand workers rights and better working conditions and wages.The garment and textiles companies that are registering in Myanmar are from countries including China, Korea, India, Singapore, Japan and from within Europe.
    This is the time to reach out and make available our support – whether it be skills or financial resources – to organise and build the union movement.The democratic union movement in Myanmar is young and at a foundational stage. Labour law and trade union laws are being reformed. These are unprecedented opportune moments to shape the future of the workers movement in Myanmar. In a broader political sense, we can’t let this newly democratised country fail and jeopardise the future of millions of workers and their children.

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