Myanmar Garment Workers Strike

Garment workers at a rally for a general strike against the Myanmar coup

AROUND 2,000 workers from a garment factory in Yangon’s Zaykabar Industrial Park in Mingaladon Township went on strike last Thursday morning, declaring that violations of their basic rights had grown unbearable.

Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar and is its industrial hub.

The workers are employees of JW factory, which is owned by Great Glowing Investment and operated by another factory in the industrial park: ADK, or ‘A Dream of Kind.’ They are both managed by the same Canadian nationals, according to Myanmar’s Directorate of Investment and Company Administration.

The factories manufacture clothing for international sportswear brands including Crivit, the sportswear brand for Lidl’s, and employ nearly 7,000 people.

Around 20 junta soldiers and police also arrived in the industrial park at around 11am to speak with the factory management, according to the striking workers. The outcome of the discussion was not known at the time of reporting.

‘Representatives from the workers’ affairs department (within the military council) came to negotiate, but that department is filled with people on (the employer’s) side,’ a 22-year-old woman participating in the walkout said.

The woman, who is also enrolled in her final year in Dagon University’s distance learning programme, started working at the site in 2020, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. She was hired at a pay rate of 4,800 kyat (US$2.50) per day, and 1,200 kyat ($0.65) per hour for overtime shifts – Myanmar’s minimum wage.

She said she was required to work 12-hour shifts six days per week, and that her employer had been pushing workers to complete more than 60 garments hourly – a quota that they could not meet.

‘We can barely make 45 pieces an hour but now they’re asking us to finish 62 pieces an hour,’ she said.

‘Injustice is widespread here. The workers are not able to practise any of the rights we are entitled to.’

In order to meet the performance expectations set by factory management, she added that it had become difficult to take a 30-minute break for lunch, or to use the toilet during their shifts.

Another 21-year-old woman from Bago participating in the strike said that she had only been paid a monthly salary of 270,000 kyat ($145) and had been required to work more than 100 overtime hours.

‘They keep cutting our salaries (for not meeting their requirements). In this system, there are more punishments for us than rewards,’ she said.

Many of Yangon’s factories are located in townships where the military has declared martial law, including Hlaing Tharyar, North and South Dagon, Dagon Seikkan, North Okkalapa and Shwepyitha.

Widespread factory closures following the February 2021 coup contributed to the loss of jobs of some 1.6m workers nationwide, according to the International Labour Organisation.

Around 200,000 workers in Myanmar’s garment industry have lost their jobs since the military seized power on February 1 2021, according to a leading workers’ rights advocate.

‘The famous brands in the garment sector have pulled out’ since the coup, said labour rights activist Ye Naing Win, noting that fashion retailers H&M and Next have both withdrawn from the country amid tightening sanctions by the European Union, the main market for Myanmar’s textile exports.

Workers from Yangon’s factories were among the first members of the public to protest against the coup. Some 16 labour organisations were subsequently outlawed by the junta, and members and leaders of unions charged with incitement.

Ye Naing Win, the secretary general of one of the banned groups – the Coordination Committee of Trade Unions – recently described how labour rights had further deteriorated since the coup, with factory workers being inadequately compensated and unfairly fired, and complaint mechanisms under the junta typically favouring employers.

The junta’s crackdown on political opposition and civil society has not spared Myanmar’s workforce, with unions banned and criminal charges levied against multiple leaders and members.

Workers from Yangon’s factories were among the first members of the public to protest at the February 2021 coup.

Some 16 labour groups have been outlawed by the coup council, including the Coordination Committee of Trade Unions (CCTU). The CCTU’s secretary general, Ye Naing Win, gave the following interview about how the organisation has remained active, and the ways in which workers have been affected by junta repression.

How has CCTU been operating since the coup?

As a group, we have stood on our own two feet since the beginning. Funds have grown tighter, but it doesn’t mean we can’t operate, even though there are many challenges.

How are factory workers in particular getting by?

Political instability and international sanctions have led to many people losing their jobs, as the factories have been shut down. Workers who were once permanent salaried employees have either been fired or they have been hired as daily wage labourers.

Has there been any progress made on earlier plans regarding the formation of unions to advocate for workers’ rights?

It was not very easy to form workers’ unions in factories even before (the coup). The previous (elected civilian) government was only allowing them to practise that right because the right to association is included in ILO conventions to which Myanmar is a signatory.

The opportunity to practise that right has become almost obsolete since the coup.

Workers have begun to lose their legal rights. They can no longer demand recognition of their rights as they have to prioritise keeping their jobs, increasing their salaries, and improving their work environment. That’s why plans to form workers’ unions have been halted.

How do you work with the junta’s labour ministry?

We have only been working with the ministry’s workers’ affairs departments.

However, complaints being filed now have been written by the workers themselves, so there is a lot of missing information. This in turn results in losses, even though what is being reported is correct.

What types of cases have you been asked to help with recently?

There was a case where the workers did not get the full salary that they were owed when a factory in East Dagon shut down. They were not paid for six months. At first, the workers called us and told us that they were going to hold a protest in the factory. I arranged a direct negotiation with their employer and more than 800 workers got the salaries that they were due. It was a success.

The problems that the majority of the workers are facing are related to getting fired from their jobs, not getting compensation, or losing salaried jobs in order to be hired on daily wages. Some daily wage labourers have been fired when they expected to be promoted to salaried jobs. These are violations of workers’ rights by the employers.

Some foreign employers want to exploit the workers amid the current political instability. Re-hiring a permanent worker as a wage worker saves them six days’ wages per month. The workers, on the other hand, are barely left with any money to buy food.

There used to be workers’ representatives at the factories on top of workers’ unions. Are they still there?

After the situation calmed down a bit following the coup, the Ministry of Labour reopened their problem-solving mechanisms. Coordination teams were formed again in every factory, called Work Coordination Committees or WCCs.

The current regime’s labour administration has said that they will not allow any complaint to be filed to the authorities without a consultation with the WCC.

The WCCs are notorious for working in favour of the employer, even under the previous two governments.

Would you say that workers are still able to demand their rights through protest?

This administration doesn’t allow any kind of strikes at all, let alone workers’ strikes.

The fight of workers, however, is based on their basic need to survive. Depending on what their basic needs are, their fights can be very big.

If we are too broke to even buy food, we will have to start demanding our rights. If tens of thousands of workers are starving, they will go out on the streets to protest, without anyone even rallying them.