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Myanmar unions fighting obstacles to organizing

19 November, 2018Workers and unions in Myanmar often face difficulties in terms of union busting, low pay and rampant precarious work. IndustriALL’s union building project focuses on strengthening unions to fight back.

Union busting is widespread in Myanmar; IndustriALL affiliate, the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM), have lost 16 of their 65 company level unions to union busting. A tactic often used is to close the factory during a slow period, thus getting rid of the union, only to reopen under another name a few weeks later with a non-unionized workforce.

Apprentices are often on the workforce, as they are cheap labour, and sometimes work is shifted to non-organized parts of the same company. Union leaders and members are dismissed, or not re-hired after their short-term contracts expires.

In the mining sector, organized by Mining Workers Federation of Myanmar (MWFM), so-called troublemakers are relocated to a different mine, far away from their union work. Unions also report on hired thugs, threatening union leaders with physical violence, and sometimes actually beating them up.

Mines are usually located far away from the larger cities, making union work difficult. Small-scale mining is widespread, as is informal work.

IndustriALL’s union building project, supported by Mondiaal FNV from the Netherlands, SASK in Finland and by FES in Germany, is strengthening the unions through trainings and access to union organizers.

And despite the union busting, workers are organizing. Since 2014, the IWFM has grown from 6,000 to almost 16,000 members. The MWFM currently has 5,500 members, 750 more since June 2018, when the new project period started.

Unions also report on progress on collective bargaining related to salaries and health and safety. In one case, 300 mineworkers had won the right to a paid holiday – the first time in five years. Issues related to women and young workers are given more attention.

With the support of ACT, the IWFM is looking at a sectoral agreement for the textile sector. Currently not all garment companies sourcing from Myanmar pay the minimum wage of 4,800 Kyat per day (US$3), so reaching an industry-wide agreement would be a major achievement in the fight for a living wage.

During a project planning meeting in Yangon on 14 – 15 November, both unions identified work plans for 2019, including:

  • increase in dues collection
  • targets for new member recruitment
  • the inclusion of provisions for women and youth in collective bargaining
  • research on occupational safety and health in the mining sector
  • continued work on sectoral CBAs