What Do Burmese Workers Want?
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In meetings with more than 100 rank-and-file workers and union leaders from Burma's factories and fields the week after that country's momentous elections, the mood was one of wary optimism. It was clear that labor voted overwhelmingly for the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. They did so as companies around Yangon and in the growing industrial zones of Bago, two hours to the north, had become increasingly belligerent toward workers, particularly those attempting to organize unions to improve their workplaces and protect their rights. Not surprisingly, citizens throughout Burma voted for change. And workers and their unions are pretty clear about what kind of change they expect.

Sandar Soe, Assistant General Secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM), the first national federation registered in the country since unions were legalized four years ago, said, "The NLD's election platform on labor is thin, but it is a democratically elected government and should support basic rights, like freedom of association."

On a practical level, workers hope that the new government will bring not only foreign investment to create new jobs but also international standards to protect human and worker rights. Young women sewing garments in the HungKiu factory producing for the Western brand H&M told me, "We voted expecting a 'new age' from this government."

Aware of how far behind its neighbors Burma has fallen over the years under military dictatorship, including a history of forced and child labor, they said, "We want our pay and benefits to be equal to other ASEAN countries." In the near term, workers from garment, food processing, plywood and cement factories, said they want companies to stop trying to destroy their unions and "game the system" around the new national minimum approved shortly before the election.

Put simply, a first-ever national minimum wage of 3,600 kyat a day (roughly $84 a month) was adopted in September; ever since then, employers have used a variety of tactics to avoid paying their employees the legal wage--including reclassifying them, creating impossible-to-reach piece-rate levels for garment production and eliminating overtime--which results in many workers getting a lower take-home paycheck than before the law was passed. Meanwhile, those who protest and try to mobilize fellow workers against these cynical practices are illegally fired.

It's a stark but predictable contrast from four years ago, when the military-backed government embarked on its first, nascent reforms. Then, with a new law in place allowing independent labor organizing, the winds of reform encouraged dozens of new unions to spring up, and employers were often neutral or at times even accepting of them in their workplaces. But similar to other democratic transitions in Asia, such as Cambodia and Indonesia, this honeymoon period soon came to an end as companies found ways to flout gaps in the laws and seek comfort in weak government enforcement.

Which brings us to the other major demand from workers and their unions. The NLD government is expected to usher in a new commitment to the rule of law and to protect workers and promote their rights. Workers from Win and Win, a Burmese plywood factory, who formed their union only two months ago, said they expect the government to support a rights environment that would allow their union to bargain for "working conditions according to international standards." Above all, farmers and factory workers say they want the government to uphold the rule of law, not support a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions.

Perhaps reassuringly, when I talked with Daw Aung San Suu Ky in January 2012, she emphasized that "the rule of law is a foundation for everything else."

In the longer term, Burmese unions are also pressing for broader societal reforms such as progressive taxation and a basic social security safety net for workers.

"The regime was hit by a tsunami," said U Maung Maung, CTUM General Secretary. "But this new government won't be able to get things done right away," he continued, counseling caution and realistic expectations.

The NLD will take power in March 2016. After that, as one U.S. government official put it to me, "The challenge is not just one of changing the system, it's the changing of the process to change the system."

In an atmosphere of high expectations but serious hurdles to comprehensive systemic change, the NLD has a difficult road ahead. Voters want to see immediate results: Farmers want more inputs and machinery to harvest crops and get better prices for their yield; factory workers want better jobs, higher wages and the freedom to organize. They all want an improved environment where rights are respected.

Voters have called for change. They know it can take time, but they know what they want.

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