Burma: Attacks on workers’ rights condemned

Sunday, September 19, 2010
A new law in Burma says anyone who takes part in industrial protests demanding better rights or conditions will be fired and blacklisted from work. Photo: Hmmm.co.za

The statement below was initiated by Working People Association (Indonesia) and Network of Progressive Youth Burma. It was released on September 16.

Other left groups from the Asian region that have signed it are: the Confederation Congress of Indonesia Union Alliance; the All Nepal Federation of Trade Unions; the Socialist Party of Malaysia; Socialist Alliance (Australia); and Socialist Alternative (Australia).

If your organisation would like to sign, email international@prp-indonesia.org.

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We strongly condemn the military junta of Burma for its new decree to curb workers’ rights to form trade unions and its harsh punishments against any industrial action.

The military junta of Burma — the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) — decreed a new regulation on August 20, at a meeting in Rangoon attended by industry employers, government ministers and Burmese military officials, including Lt-Gen Myint Swe of the ministry of defence.

It said whoever launches or takes part in industrial protests demanding better rights or conditions would be fired and blacklisted.

The reason for the decree, labour activists in Burma believe, is that the junta wants to prevent further industrial action and employers don’t want their workers taking action to demand better wages.

Now they can fire those who protest and stop them from getting jobs elsewhere.

In March, workers at industries such as Shwe Pyi Thar, Taung Dagon and Hlaing Thayar launched protests demanding that employers give them time off during public holidays and increase their salaries and payments for working overtime.

An industrial worker in Burma earns about US$20-40 monthly. Many have to work overtime to augment their insufficient income.

Historically, labour movements have played a big role in the Burmese people’s struggles against colonialism and fascist military dictatorships.

Burma has experienced two big uprisings in its history in which the workers played the leading role, together with students and the general public. These were the “1300 [Burmese calendar] anti-colonial uprising” and the student-led “8888” pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988.

The 1300 anti-colonial uprising took place from 1938 to 1939 and was kindled by a labour strike staged by workers from the Chauk petroleum refinery, owned by British Oil Company (BOC). The “1300 uprising” awakened strong patriotic and nationalist sentiments throughout the country and paved the way for a nationwide anti-colonial independence movement.

After the military coup in 1962 led by General Ne Win, democracy, human rights and freedom to form independent labour unions were suppressed; education, health and other socioeconomic indicators deteriorated significantly as well.

Under General Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council, and later the Burma Socialist Program Party, workers faced various forms of oppression and exploitation, including low pay, poor living conditions and lack of personal security.

In June 1974, railway workers in Burma staged a strike that led to a nationwide workers’ strike. The strike brought all government administration and the operation of public works to a virtual standstill.

The workers demanded higher salaries, lowering of basic commodity prices, freedom to form an independent labour union, and some fringe benefits for their families. The government rejected their demands and the workers’ strike was crushed.

Many workers were gunned down inside the factories and on the streets; others were arrested and sentenced to long-term imprisonment, fired from their jobs, transferred to other towns and cities, or forced into early retirement.

During the 1988 nationwide demonstrations, many government workers joined the students in the streets of Rangoon and other cities to call for democracy and human rights.

The demonstrations quickly gained momentum and became the largest uprising in the history of modern Burma.

The one-party system of General Ne Win faced a serious political crisis and, again, government administration came to a virtual standstill as a general strike took hold.

During the protest, many independent organisations, including labour unions, emerged throughout the country. After the September 18, 1988, military coup, however, all independent organisations and unions were banned.

Many of the workers who took part in the protests were given long jail sentences, dismissed from their jobs or transferred to other locations, or forced into early retirement.

Despite several attempts by labour rights activists and lawyers to register independent labour unions, the regime has turned down the applications.

On June 23, the Burmese regime again rejected an application to form a “Burma National Labour Union”. In the absence of independent labour unions and other channels, such as a free press, to express their grievances, workers in Burma remain exploited by both foreign and local factory owners.

They have no means to demand the absence of all workers’ rights, adequate pay, proper working conditions and personal security.

Therefore, we the undersigned organisations and political parties declare our solidarity with the struggle of Burma's working class, and hereby demand:
• The new regulation to prevent labour rights are abolished;
• Any form of repression of workers by factory owners or government agencies are rejected; and
• Full democratic rights are granted to workers, including the right to organise, build independent trade unions and form political parties.

We declare our full support for the people of Burma to build a democratic Burma, because only in a democratic Burma can prosperity and justice be achieved. Workers of the world unite!

From GLW issue 853