Burma has long been known as a black hole for human rights. But the new leadership of the military junta hopes to shed its pariah image by loosening its oppressive policies. And as with other authoritarian states "transitioning" toward democracy, the state of labor rights is a harbinger of the real prospects for reform and justice.
Earlier this year, a new labor law was cautiously welcomed by international labor groups. But it didn't take long for the regime to backpedal by thwarting what should have been a mundane application process for a union. A textile, leather, and apparel factory in the mid-sized city of Bago filed a union application, but according to Mizzima:
The Ministry of Labour said the application was unacceptable noting that President Thein Sein had not yet signed a notification that is required to put the new law into force and a chief registrar had not yet been appointed.
"They (authorities) just said they could not accept (the application)," trade union spokesman San Maung told Mizzima. "According to the law, it should not be like that.... According to the Constitution, the law must come into force as soon as the president signed it."
One reason for the bureaucratic incompetency seems to be that the government doesn't want the law to really work. Labor advocates say the provisions are laced with loopholes designed to keep unions as weak as possible.
During a visit to the AFL-CIO, U Maung Maung, general secretary of the Federal Trade Unions of Burma, warned that there are still no adequate protections for freedom of association or collective bargaining, and vigilance from the international labor movement is as vital as ever. The AFL-CIO blog reported:
Although [U Maung Maung] acknowledged the tricky political reasons for a shift in the law, ultimately he believes the support of international organizations and the use of sanctions -- continued pressure on the government -- is effectively bringing about positive change in Burma....
[T]he draft Labor Organizations Law provides for the registration of unions in Burma for the first time in 39 years. In fact, on Oct. 25, the Agriculture and Farmers Federation of Myanmar sent in their registration, and others are soon to follow.
But Jackie Pollock of the Thailand-based MAP Foundation, which aids Burmese migrants, told In These Times that the new law is a measure of the amount of work still yet to be done in building a viable independent labor movement:
Clearly for the Burmese ruling party it is a strategy to get more investment in the country.
While it is a major step forward for workers, to be truly useful, other reforms must be implemented: a minimum wage which is sufficient for workers and their families to live on and have security, health and safety standards etc. If these standards are not enshrined in the law, then even if the workers can take collective action, they have no legal framework within which to make their calls.
Jeff Vogt of the International Trade Union Confederation's Department of Human and Trade Union Rights told ITT that the organization is "deeply and justifiably concerned that the government is establishing its own government-dominated 'unions' that will thereafter be recognized as the 'legitimate' workers' representatives by the government."
In the face of monstrous impunity, the formal trappings of a union would hold little power for ordinary people, especially in the most marginalized communities. The International Labour Organization points to ongoing problems with forced labor and child labor, in military operations and the private sector. In conflict zones, Burma's military has a track record of using prison labor on various projects.
Carole Reckinger reported in the New Statesman in 2008 that the military "routinely forces civilians to work on state infrastructure projects, such as the building of roads, bridges, military bases or even towns" and "will typically demand labour from local villages, with the threat of fines if households are unable to supply the required amount of people." Some villagers were coerced to work "as human minesweepers to clear the way for the safe passage of soldiers."
In 2009 EarthRights International condemned the French oil company Total for collaborating with the military regime on a pipeline project that was linked to "forced labor, killings, and multi-billion dollar profits." As it angles for more foreign investment, Burma may soon be "rewarded" for its reforms with more exploitative multinational energy projects.
Whatever unions emerge now might have virtually no leverage against a regime that has historically enslaved its own citizens. According to Mizzima, "Under the new law, workers must inform the authorities 14 days in advance to hold a demonstration and provide details on the number of participants, the method of protest, and the time and location. The law restricts demonstrations that will affect public services such as water, electricity, fire brigades, health and communication."
On the other hand, spontaneous worker-led actions in recent months show that even without formal protections, people are mobilizing. Workers at a Korean-owned factory in Yangon's Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone recently staged a major protest over underpaid wages.
After years of false promises, Burmese workers have every reason to doubt the sincerity of their rulers' latest reform rhetoric. But even if the new labor law is a mere gesture to placate international critics, those principles are already taking hold in Burmese society, and many citizens have realized they don't need a legal code to tell them what rights they're free to claim.
This piece was cross-posted from In These Times.