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IndustriALL Myanmar affiliates make rapid progress, despite challenges

7 December, 2016The Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) and the Mining Workers Federation of Myanmar (MWFM) participated in a series of IndustriALL workshops from 2-5 December on union building, gender and precarious work. 

Coming out of a decades-long period of dictatorship, Myanmar is still very much a developing democracy. Many of the problems faced by unions relate to the use of standard one-year contracts as a substitute for permanent employment. These are frequently used to get rid of union leaders when their one-year contracts end. Countless workers don’t even get this ‘standard’ contract, as they are employed on much shorter-term contracts, with far inferior conditions.

Employers customarily add 50-70 additional rules to the standard contracts, non-compliance with which can lead to dismissal. Examples include: ‘You must follow the orders of your supervisor and agree to do work that you may not have been hired for originally’; ‘you are not allowed to assemble in the workplace’; ‘you are not allowed to talk to workers from other work sections’; or ‘you must reach the production quota’. The latter clause forces workers to do unpaid overtime or leads to dismissal when they don’t reach their targets. Other contract stipulations say that workers cannot work for other plants in the same region or sector after their job ends, or that they do not have the right to join a union.

Dismissals of trade unionists and union leaders are a wide-ranging problem. Employers are known to publish names of dismissed trade union leaders on their websites, in effect blacklisting them from future employment.

Other problems in Myanmar include the lack of health and safety protection, especially in mining, and the difficulties of achieving good collective agreements. As so much is still new for the unions, they continue to need training and knowledge, particularly on wage negotiations since workers are often paid below the minimum wage (currently at 3,600 kyat or US$2.7 per day).

Despite these challenges, the Myanmar affiliates are growing through their numerous successful organizing campaigns, supported by IndustriALL and other trade union organizations including FNV Mondiaal, FES, Union To Union and Australian affiliate CFMEU.

Over the last year the IFWM grew from 11,232 members to 13,486, of which 80 per cent are women and MWFM grew from 3,785 in 2015 to 7,452. A surprising 30 per cent of this mining union’s members are women.

As a result, workers are starting to get access to social security benefits and other entitlements such as paid overtime and redundancy payments. Some unions have been able to convert precarious jobs into permanent ones, up to 500 at once in one case.

Maternity protection has been a high priority and the law now allows for 98 days paid maternity leave, up from 90 but still below the 120 days in ILO Convention 183. While enforcement is still a problem, unions have made other advances including separate toilets for women. Agreements that no women workers will be dismissed as a result of pregnancy now apply in 80 per cent of factories where there is a union.