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Passion for better lives in Myanmar

31 March, 2015After fifty years of military rule, Myanmar is taking steps towards becoming a democracy and a new industrial tiger. Workers are impatient in their desire for a better life, and they know they need unions for creating a durable change.

In March, I did a mini-tour of Asia including visits to Myanmar and Vietnam. The programs in both countries were rather similar: meetings with labour ministers, our affiliates and partners, visits to garment factories and press conferences. The schedules were tight, but it was very rewarding.

Just think about my first event in an industrial area near Myanmar’s biggest city Yangon. More than 200 young women and some men gathered in a hall to celebrate the International Women’s Day on 8 March.

It was not possible for us to march because of the 38C heat and strong sunshine. We stayed inside and talked about organizing, building stronger unions, bringing more women into union positions – and about health care and maternity protection.

Fifty years of military regime not only means that there is no civil society or middle class in this country of 50 million people. There is also a lack of hospitals, clinics and knowledge about maternity and health issues. It will take years to build a new Myanmar.

But these smiling, young worker sisters showed so much energy and passion for achieving a better life. They understand that for creating a change, they need to join workers’ forces into unions.

IndustriALL Global Union is supporting organizing, training and union building in Myanmar, together with our partners such as the ITUC, BWI and FES. Since 2012, 1,400 local unions have been set up. But there is still a long way to go.

In December 2014, IndustriALL approved the affiliation of the industrial workers’ and mineworkers’ federations IWFM and MWFM, both members of the CTUM trade union centre led by Maung Maung.

Less than three years ago the unions started from zero, so their growth has been impressive. They see a huge need for training ahead, as there is no experience of bargaining either on the worker side or in company management. The same goes for handling health and safety matters.

But workers are learning quickly. I visited the Japanese-owned Sakura garment factory near Yangon, where 600 mainly female workers toil 60 hours a week, 10 hours a day from Monday to Saturday.

Recently the union committee – women only! – concluded the first ever collective agreement for the factory. They achieved an 18 per cent wage increase bringing the lowest salary to US$ 118 per month. No strike was needed – but all the workers wore red armbands for two weeks as a soft warning.

As foreign investment in industrial production accelerates, the government is busy with new labour laws and deciding on a first-ever minimum wage. I told the labour minister how important it was to set it at a level of a living wage.

The minister knew what I was talking about. Wildcat strikes of impatient factory workers demanding higher wages are spreading. Handling them peacefully will be one of the key tests for the new society.

Jyrki Raina

General Secretary