Myanmar’s trade unions facing a brutal regime

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Refugees forced to flee from Mindat, western Myanmar. Over three million have been forcibly displaced

MYANMAR’s trade unions are facing brutal retaliation in the fight for democracy, says Khaing Zar Aung, the President of the Industrial Workers Union of Myanmar.

Democratic forces in Myanmar have been fighting for more than three years against a brutal military junta.
Trade unions are a crucial part of the resistance movement, and labour activists have faced extraordinary retaliation.
Khaing Zar Aung has been blacklisted by the junta and forced to live in exile.
A tireless campaigner for workers’ rights and democratic freedoms in her home country, Khaing Zar was awarded the Arthur Svennson International Prize for Trade Union Rights, a well-known award given to defenders of labour freedoms.
In her acceptance speech at the awards ceremony in Oslo, Norway on 12 June, 2024, she said: ‘Since the military coup in February 2021, the military has tried to force us into subordination with killings, torture, bombing, countless arrests and displacement.
‘Since then, over three million people have been internally displaced. At least 8,000 civilians, including many trade unionists, have died. 70 per cent of the total nation has faced armed clashes.
‘More than 86,000 buildings, including schools and healthcare facilities, have been attacked and destroyed. Around 400,000 government employees who joined the civil disobedience movement have lost jobs and income. At least 26,799 people have been arrested, among them over 500 trade unionists.
‘For more than three years, the military has waged an open war against the people of Myanmar, and the world has started to notice. Yet the oppression by successive military regimes has been ongoing for decades, a fact that is seen in the many who had to seek refuge in Norway over the years.’
She added: ‘In February 2021, the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM) issued a statement condemning the coup and leaving the National Tripartite Forum. We organised our members and the opposition on all fronts. Members and leaders of CTUM took to the streets and helped bring hundreds of thousands out in protest. The military issued arrest warrants against all the CTUM central committee members, including myself.
‘All our passports were declared void, and we all have court cases against us for state treason. The CTUM headquarters office was ransacked, and everything was taken. Our family members are under constant threat – forcing many to leave the country. Many were tortured to death or forced into hiding.
‘Our organisation has experienced fighting against the military regime, having done so since 1988. We can confidently say that today’s regime is much weaker than the one 20 years ago, and the democratic forces are much stronger.
‘The military has lost more than half of the country’s territory because of the coordinated attacks by democratic armed forces. We can win, and we will win.
‘However, the international community can and must do more to support our people, who are risking their lives to free our country.

Corporate hypocrisy

‘The military denies workers all human rights and creates conditions where garment workers make US$1.50 per day without any chance to improve their conditions through organising. Meanwhile, fake unions are sprouting up under the Made in Myanmar project funded by the European Union. Made in Myanmar is a stain on the EU and must be stopped immediately. It is nothing but a cover-up for global brands that want to benefit from the cheap labour in Myanmar under the guise of “providing jobs.” What they provide is slave work!
‘When workers dare to organise in genuine trade unions, the leaders and their families are threatened with arrest, torture, and death. In many garment factories, working conditions are close to slavery, with more than 16-hour work days at poverty wages to produce garments for European consumers. It is a convenient lie for multinational fashion brands to argue that they generously stay in Myanmar to provide jobs for otherwise unemployed workers. In reality, they make use of cheap labour.
‘Under this military regime, any talk of “heightened due diligence” is nothing but window-dressing. Show me one brand that has stopped the countless arrests, torture, and murders of trade unionists fighting for decent work in their factories. They can’t stop it, of course, because it is not possible. Brands claim to do due diligence, but their so-called “responsible business conduct” is simply impossible under a military dictatorship.
‘Global brands that stay in the country, like the Danish brand Bestseller, implicitly accept the rampant violations of trade union rights. Brands even contribute to these violations by paying taxes and factory “protection fees” to the military.
‘They are funding the regime.
‘No more excuses: global brands must responsibly exit Myanmar!’

Khaing Zar’s speech added:

Military conscription

‘In October 2023, the United Nations news agency reported the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Commission of Inquiry’s findings. The recommendations urge the military authorities to immediately cease all forms of violence, torture and other inhumane treatment against trade union leaders and members; to release and withdraw all criminal charges against trade unionists detained in relation to the exercise of their civil liberties and legitimate trade union activities; and to fully restore the protection of basic civil liberties suspended since the coup d’état.
‘The recommendations also urge the military authorities to end the exaction of all forms of forced or compulsory labour by the army and its associated forces, as well as forced recruitment into the army. Yet on February 10, the military regime in Myanmar implemented a compulsory national service law, as reported by televised state media.
‘The new legislation mandates that all men between the ages of 18 and 35, as well as women aged 18 to 27, must serve up to two years under military command. Additionally, specialists such as doctors up to the age of 45 are required to serve for a period of three years.
‘The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, has condemned the junta’s implementation of compulsory military conscription as a sign of the regime’s “weakness and desperation”.

The need for comprehensive economic sanctions

‘If you all observe the above happenings, it is clear that the Myanmar junta cannot be moved by resolutions alone. Resolutions must be enforced by economic sanctions, the only available nonviolent action to end the military regime.
‘I stand here representing not only workers and trade unions from Myanmar, but also 183 democratic organisations, including organisations of youth and women, strike committees from across the country, student unions, and government employees such as teachers, doctors, and nurses who joined the Civil Disobedience Movement following our call.
‘Together we:

  • Demand a total arms embargo and comprehensive economic sanctions – with enforcement through legislation provided within the US and UK systems against the three national banks, which mainly collect foreign currency;
  • Call on multinational companies – including insurance companies and fashion brands — to exit responsibly from Myanmar;
  • Call on shipping companies to stop delivering weapons and dual-use goods like fuels for military vehicles and airplanes to Myanmar;
  • Call on the European Union to withdraw the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade benefits from Myanmar.

The EU’s EBA programme was designed to offer trade incentives to the poorest countries to promote democracy and full respect for core human and labour rights.
‘The EU withdrew some preferences from Cambodia in 2020 because it does not respect workers’ rights, but it maintains the full EBA preferences for Myanmar.
The EU thus maintains that it is possible to implement due diligence in a country where industrial zones are under martial law, where Freedom of Association is banned and all genuine trade union representatives are under arrest warrants, hunted, tortured or killed.
‘The EU must stop subsidising the military with the EBA trade preferences. It must recognise the government in exile and do everything it can to support our liberation struggle.’