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The situation of trade unions in Myanmar

Trade unions in garment factories in Myanmar are systematically hampered in their work. New trade unions at garment factories in Myanmar are regularly busted by the management. Union leaders are fired and members are intimidated. Working conditions are terrible in numerous Myanmar garment factories, including many in the supply chains of prominent European brands.

Myanmar has only allowed workers to legally form and join unions since 2012. Given this, Myanmar workers have had to build their unions from zero in the face of increasing resistance from many employers using “union-avoidance” tactics, which commonly include terminating union leaders and members as well as various forms of intimidation to suppress freedom of association through fear. Moreover, although recent labour law reforms improved labour rights on paper in Myanmar, these laws are flawed in significant aspects and fall well short of international labour standards. Enforcement of labour laws is also problematic due to Myanmar’s weak rule of law and corruption.

Working conditions are terrible in numerous Myanmar garment factories, including many in the supply chains of prominent European brands. Garment workers universally work 6 days a week for 10-12 hours a day. Health and safety measures are often inadequate and workers’ labour is maximized by restricting their rest periods and toilet breaks to an absolute minimum. Despite one of the lowest minimum wages in the world, wage theft in various forms is common. Even legally entitled paid leave and holidays are often not respected.

Following the lifting of Western sanctions a few years ago, it was this environment that has attracted hundreds of multi-national garment and other manufacturers to Myanmar, many seeking to maximize profits through the exploitation of cheap labor and avoidance of workers' rights. It is well-documented that international brands’ codes of conduct and CSR programs do not adequately address the shortfalls related to workers' rights.

Factory-level unions frequently form due to widespread labour law violations and worker discontent but many are destroyed by their employer within their initial year of existence. Some factory-level unions decide to affiliate to one of Myanmar’s fledgling union federations, which have only existed for a few years and lack the power of union federations in more developed countries. Other factory-level unions decide that existing federations do not meet their expectations and choose instead to join loose networks for mutual support, some of which are looking to form new union federations.

As workers wish to freely choose their associations, many which have not affiliated to union federations see a need to seek advice and assistance from labour NGOs. The increasing hostility of employers, the frequent lack of labor law enforcement from the government, and the fact that union federations are at an early stage of development means that the role of labour rights NGOs, including Action Labor Rights (ALR), is critically important to advancing and upholding freedom of association in Myanmar. It should also be noted that most Myanmar garment workers are aged 18-26 and know little or nothing about trade unions given the country’s isolation under a military regime for 50 years prior to 2012. In addition to union federations, ALR and other labour NGOs offer much-needed education, advice and help in navigating the many challenges workers face in forming and building their unions, especially when facing a hostile employer.

Not garment workers - but Rangoon brick workers. Photo by Brian Holsclaw (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Sources: Solidarity Center and SOMO


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