YANGON—On Sunday March 9, I attended an International Women’s Day (IWD) event in the Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone, part of a sprawling suburb located across the Hlaing River on the western outskirts of Myanmar’s largest city. Some 270 women, mostly garment factory workers, got the day off so they could attend an information session on self-empowerment and women’s rights.
The keynote address was by Myanmar’s deputy minister of labour Win Maw Tun, who shared her own beginnings as an oil refinery worker and experience as an advocate for women’s and labour rights. There were also speakers from organizations representing women entrepreneurs, the motion picture industry, and women and children’s development. Printed material included everything from leaflets on ILO standards and women workers to NGO pamphlets on reproductive health issues.
Unions: back in business
The IWD event was organized by the Federation of Trade Unions Myanmar (FTUM), an organization that, until two years ago, was outlawed in this country and forced to operate from across the Thai and Indian borders, with several branches overseas. For many years, the federation’s two main issues were forced labour inside Burma and migrant worker rights abroad. But in 2009, the organization—then known as FTUB—voted at its congress to focus on freedom of association. The federation’s executive members returned to Myanmar in September 2012 and FTUM is now fully operational.
“It’s not perfect. We have to register our affiliates with the government, and there are some restrictions, but at least we can operate within the country now,” Min Lwin, secretary of FTUM’s trade union rights/human rights department, told me recently. Min Lwin says that when the former Minister of Labour and the Senior Union Minister from the President’s Office informed FTUM that its members working underground could now return home, it took some time to establish trust. Labour activists had, after all, been arrested and jailed under the military regime.
During its repatriation process, FTUM insisted that discussions with the government be held with representatives from the International Labour Organization and the International Trade Unions Confederation in attendance. Following an ILO labour conference in June 2012, the stage was set for 20 union leaders to return to Myanmar in September that year. “The government advised us to come one person at a time,” Min Lwin recalls. “Among them, some decided not to return—to resettle in other countries—while others resigned and some took longer to return because of the government’s screening process.”
Today, FTUM has 359 affiliates representing more than 35,000 members, and its efforts are mainly focused on organizing. Seventy per cent of FTUM members are farmers and agricultural workers. However, an increasing number (15 per cent at the moment) work in industries and garment factories, and about 45 per cent of FTUM members are women. The federation is also currently trying to organize domestic workers.
Returning to her homeland
FTUM youth committee (international department) secretary Phyo Sandar Soe, a 30-year-old union organizer from Yangon, fled Burma in 2006. She joined FTUM while working at a garment factory in Mae Sot, Thailand. “Someone from the migrant worker programme came to our factory to organize us,” she tells me, during an earlier interview at FTUM’s office in Tamwe Township. “I didn’t imagine we could ever come back. I didn’t know when we could achieve democracy, but I joined FTUM in the belief I could do something for the workers of our country.”
Sandar’s story is typical of many Myanmar citizens who fought for human rights, democracy, student’s rights or women’s rights during the SLORC/SPDC dictatorships. “During the military regime, organizing was very difficult. In 2008, while I was in the border area, the regime questioned my parents and my younger sister was put in prison for one night. The special bureau agents told my parents I was a terrorist who had gone to New Zealand to get training in bomb-making, when in fact I had gone to Thailand to study human rights and labour.”
Today, Sandar is grateful to be back home in Myanmar, despite the many challenges that lie ahead for labour and women’s rights. One condition for the right of return was that FTUM had to drop its demand for a ILO commission of inquiry into forced labour. Today, there are also some restrictions for organizing: the government approval process can be difficult for trade unions trying to organize at the township, regional, and federation levels. “But at least we can organize workers,” she says. “Compared to the military regime time, it’s a lot easier.”
Challenges remain for working women
At the IWD event in Hlaing Tharyar, Sandar tells me that women in Myanmar continue to face discrimination in the workplace. Unlike their male colleagues, women continue to lack access to education, vocational or skills training, and employment opportunities in general.
“If we want to achieve equality in the workplace, we should be working for general equality in society,” she says. “As for the trade union movement, we should have more programs that consider women for training. Every programme, every policy, should consider women. We have the responsibility to work for our sisters who don’t have those rights yet.”
After the IWD event, I had a few minutes to chat with a couple of factory workers. During our brief interviews, which Sandar graciously translated, the event stage was being noisily dismantled and we were surrounded by curious onlookers who wanted to see what the only foreigner in the room was up to. So I forgot to ask these women if they had children (or how many other family members they might be supporting), and whether they lived inside or outside the industrial zone. But it’s no secret that factory housing in this country typically squeezes four people into a space as small as eight by ten feet. It’s also a safe bet that these women’s salaries are paying for more than just themselves.
Here’s what they had to say:
Win Theingi Soe
For the past four years Win, aged 30, has worked as a sewing machine operator at the Yes One Myanmar garment factory. One of 1,300 employees packed into a factory that is the size of the small meeting hall for the IWD event, Win works a 14-hour shift for six days a week. Unlike beginners, who earn a minimum wage of 50,000 kyats (about US$ 50) a month, Win earns the maximum Ks 120,000.
For the past eleven days, Win and her co-workers have been on strike over wages and working conditions. Among the nine bargaining demands on the table, her union is seeking a monthly wage increase of $20 for everyone and several changes to address poor working conditions.
“If workers are sick, they can’t take time off their shift to go to the clinic,” she says. “And the employer provides no medical treatment for workers injured on the job. The working hours are too long, and if managers want to dismiss a worker, they don’t talk to the union.”
Win celebrated this year’s International Women’s Day by thanking her union.
“Before the union, management tried to dismiss workers who demanded better wages,” she says. “Now they have to listen to us.”
Tin Moe Khine
Tin Moe is a 35-year-old sewing machine operator who works at the Sakura garment factory. After doing this kind of work for 16 years, she is glad to be represented by a union.
“Before the union was formed, we had bad relations with management. Before, they verbally and physically abused us. But since the union came in that has stopped, so working conditions have improved,” she says.
Tin Moe says that events like International Women’s Day are helpful to garment workers because they inspire action.
“More women should be union reps so that we can organise more women,” she says. “Women should try to work for our rights so that we can participate more in policy-making and decisions.”
For more information about FTUM, visit their website.
–Photos by Daniel Gawthrop