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2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Burma

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 6 June 2012
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Burma, 6 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fd8895ec.html [accessed 21 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 47,900,000
Capital: Naypyidaw (Pyinmana)

ILO Core Conventions Ratified:

29 (Forced Labour (1930))
87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (1948))

Reported Violations – 2012

Imprisonments: 7

Documented violations – actual number of cases may be higher

Introduction

Some significant changes took place in Burma in 2011. On 11 October, the Labour Organisation Bill was signed to replace the repressive 1962 Trade Unions Act. It allows workers to form unions and to strike. The government initiated a political dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), which is ongoing. The government released some political prisoners, though the many trade union activists and leaders of the "88-Generation" remained behind bars. However, the constitution remains deeply flawed and the parliament continues to be dominated by current and former military personnel. Despite the establishment of an ILO Commission of Inquiry in 1998, forced labour (including the conscription and use of child soldiers) remains widespread. The government has utterly failed to rein in the army, which is responsible for most of the forced labour, or ensure that those responsible are prosecuted and face appropriate criminal penalties if convicted.

Background

The year in Burma was one of hope for democratic reform and national reconciliation tempered with the realities of the government's continued offensives against ethnic nationality groups, and systematic and pervasive human rights abuses. On 31 January, Burma's bicameral parliament convened for the first time in 22 years. However the parliament is dominated by former military officials who resigned and ran as members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party. In addition, military appointees comprise 25% of all seats in parliament. Between the seats reserved for the military and former military elected as USDP members, the military controls 80% of all parliamentary seats.

During the year, the government released some political prisoners; however, a large number of political prisoners remained in jail. The laws and judicial system that imprisoned them in the first place have not been changed. Moreover, the military has continued brutal attacks on ethnic communities in Kachin and Shan states and the underlying causes of the long-running armed conflicts have not been addressed. Serious human rights abuses continue throughout the country, with little accountability for those committing these crimes. Reform of the judicial system to ensure independence from military or political interference has not been addressed.

On 17 November, ASEAN leaders named Burma the rotating ASEAN Chair for 2014. On 18 November, the National League for Democracy unanimously voted to re-register as a political party and will field candidates for seats in parliament. End November, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma and provided the government with limited incentives to encourage further reforms. However, Clinton was unequivocal in her statements that the government had to initiate further reforms if the US was to consider the lifting of sanctions. Key to the lifting of sanctions was an end to ethnic conflict, the release of all political prisoners, an end to ties with North Korea, and the creation of strong democratic institutions.

On 23 May, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma Tomás Ojea Quintana said that government armed forces continued to commit "widespread" human rights abuses, including land confiscation, forced labour, internal displacement, extrajudicial killings, and sexual violence. As the year ended, government forces continued offensives and human rights abuses in Kachin State and Northern Shan State. On 12 October, the government released over 200 political prisoners. Among those released were seven trade unionists and one labour activist. In addition, the government lifted restrictions on press censorship and enacted laws to allow for peaceful protests.

On 22 August, the US dollar exchange rate price fell to a record low of 680 kyat further hurting Burma's export industry. The strong kyat has left Burmese garment factories in crisis causing some factories to be shut down and others to lay off workers and reduce operations. Officials of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and the owners of factories in Rangoon industrial zones threatened to request the government to taken action under "The State Emergency Act" against competing factory owners who offered higher wages to attract employees and thereby causing unrest among the workers at the lower-paying factories. Thousands of construction workers in Burma's capital, Naypyidaw, lost their jobs due to the regime's suspension of numerous projects. Suspension of the projects has come with allegations that many workers have been unpaid for more than three months.

Trade union rights in law

A new Labour Organizations Law was adopted by the government on 2011, which provides for the repeal of the 1926 Trade Union Act and contains provisions on the establishment of labour organizations, their functions and duties, rights and responsibilities, including the right to strike. However, the new Law is not fully in line with ILO standards and it is still limited by previous military orders and decrees. While now a union can be formed with 30 workers of the relevant trade or activity, it is still conditioned on not being "contrary to the laws enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquillity, or public order and morality". Also, legislation requiring all organisations to obtain permission to exist from the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs is still in force, and the single trade union system in place. In addition, Order 2/88, which bans any activity of five persons or more, such as gathering or marching in procession, and further stipulates that blocking roads, demonstrating en masse, and interfering with people carrying out security duties are prohibited, was not repealed.

The right to collective bargaining is not recognised, and industrial disputes continue to be covered by the Trade Disputes Act, which includes a number of provisions that are not in conformity with international ILO standards. The penalties for disregarding these laws are extensive and may entail imprisonment of up to five years.

The right to strike has been recognized. However, trade unions can exercise strike action only following the approval from "the relevant labour federation". Furthermore, strikes in the water, electricity, fire, health and communication services are illegal and other services may as well be added to this list.

Link to additional detailed information regarding the legislation on the ITUC website here

In practice

ILO finds forced labour in Burma still pervasive:

In 2011, the ILO Committee of Experts reported that it had received "extensive and detailed documentation referring to the persistence of widespread forced labour practices by civil and military authorities in almost all of the country's states and divisions." Subsequent reports from credible sources show that the widespread and systematic use of forced labour (including forced recruitment of child soldiers) continues apace in Burma. The military in particular continues to force villagers to perform portering, road construction, road-repair and military camp construction, fence building and road clearing. In some cases, villagers are also forced to cultivate rice and other crops on plantations for military use. In some areas, such as the Arakan state, the use of forced labour was reported to have actually increased in 2011. Moreover, in many regions, people willing to present complaints are either threatened or discouraged from doing so.

In 2011, Human Rights Watch and the Karen Human Rights Group issued a lengthy report, Dead Men Walking: Convict Porters on the Front Lines in Eastern Burma, on the use of hundreds of convicts for forced porting by the military in, inter alia, northern Karen State. In interviews, prisoners reported being subjected to horrifying conditions. The military executed porters, inflicted physical abuse, failed to protect them from danger arising from military operations, and refused to care for the wounded or sick. Porters were denied food and water and forced to carry extremely heavy loads over hazardous terrain with minimal rest.

There are also continuing reports of forced child recruitment by the armed forces. Few have been punished, and those that have received administrative sanctions such as discipline or discharge from the army.

In 1998, the ILO Commission of Inquiry directed the government of Burma to take the necessary steps to ensure: 1) that the relevant legislative texts, in particular the Villages Act and the Towns Act, be brought into line with the Convention; 2) that in actual practice, no more forced or compulsory labour be imposed by the authorities, in particular the military, and 3) that the penalties which may be imposed under section 374 of the Penal Code for the exaction of forced or compulsory labour be strictly enforced, which required thorough investigation, prosecution and adequate punishment of those found guilty.

The ILO Report to the November 2011 Governing Body, "Developments concerning the question of the observance by the Government of Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)" demonstrates that while there have been some steps forward, Burma has yet to fulfill these requirements over a decade after the establishment of the Commission. Few military, public officials or civilians have faced meaningful sanctions, including criminal sentences, for committing forced labour.

Violations

Striking garment workers threatened with violence:

On 16 February, about 200 workers from the South Korean-owned Lion City garment factory in Rangoon's Insein Township went on strike calling for a salary increase and better working conditions. In response, police deployed about 15 riot police trucks to the area around the factory.

On 17 February, the workers called off their strike after Lion City management agreed to a 5,000 kyat (USD5) monthly pay hike and more favourable working conditions.

Release of political prisoners including trade unionists: On 12 October, Burma's regime released over 200 political prisoners. Among those released were trade unionists Mr. Myo Aung Thant, Ms. Aye Thi Khaing, Ms. Aye Chan, Ms. Yin Kyi, Mr. Tin Hla, Mr. Zaw Htay, Mr. Khin Oo, and labour activist Ms. Su Su Nway.

Applications to form a trade unions rejected: On 25 October, the Agriculture and Farmers Federation of Myanmar (AFFM) presented its registration application to the Ministry of Labour. On 2 December, the textile, garment and leather factory workers union in Bago also submitted registration papers. In both cases, authorities explained that they could not accept the application because implementing regulations had not been completed and that no registrar had yet been appointed. The Myanmar Industrial Trade Unions Federation (MITU) filed a registration application but has yet to receive a reply from the government.

The repression of striking workers continued:

In 2011, thousands of workers have undertaken numerous strikes out of utter desperation over extremely low wages and abysmal working conditions in apparel and footwear factories, most located in and around Rangoon. Reported strikes include those at CGI garment factories in South Dagon Township Industrial Zone No. 2, Taiyi shoe factory in Hlaing Tharyar Township Industrial Zone, Mya Fashion garment factory in Hlaing Tharyar Township Industrial Zone 3, New Way shoe factory in Hlaing Tharyar Township Industrial Zone 4 and PTK Company in Three Pagodas Pass.

Most workers are also hired as day labourers with no employment stability whatsoever. In many cases, riot police, police custody vans and fire trucks appear on the scene as soon as a strike starts in an effort to control and intimidate the workers. In some cases, workers have been told to disperse immediately or face a harsh crackdown from the central and/or township government.

In early February, about 700 workers at United World and Oscar garment factories in Shwepyithar Industrial Zone in Rangoon went on strike and successfully negotiated regular bonuses, an on-site medical clinic, sufficient water supplies and toilets, and better working conditions.

At the same time, about 70 Burmese labourers working for the Italian Thai Development Public Company Ltd. (ITD) on the construction of the Tavoy (Dawei) deep-sea port project went on strike to protest low wages and long working hours with no overtime or holiday pay. The workers also claimed that Burmese workers receive less pay and benefits than their Thai counterparts. On 3 March, about 1,500 workers from Grand Royal beverage factory, Super Garment and Kaunggyi Minglar textile factories in Rangoon's Shwepithar Township went on strike to demand better wages, public holidays and overtime pay. The workers returned to their factories on 4 March after they reached a compromise with factory owners. On 8 March, about 1,700 workers at the Taiyi shoe factory in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone in Rangoon went on strike to demand increased pay and better working conditions. Workers only earned USD 0.70 for a 12-hour day. Around 500 workers at the New Way shoe factory in Rangoon's Hlaing Tharyar Township went on strike on 22 March after factory management rejected their demands for an increase in pay.

Sixty-five workers at the Korean owned Cap 1 Hat Factory in Hinthakon War in Pegu Division went on strike on 6 June and were able to successfully negotiate a settlement the following day. The workers' main complaints involved restrictive bathroom breaks and abusive supervisors.

In September, more than 300 workers at the Esquire Shoe Factory in Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone No. 3 in Rangoon went on strike on 6 September for higher wages.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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