Myanmar’s labor ministry is warning thousands of striking factory workers that unless they return to work, authorities will take action against them.
Outside Myanmar's main city, Yangon, industrial zones have become a focus of the country’s fledgling workers' rights movement with thousands walking off their jobs earlier this month. They are demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year working for the same company and input from labor unions on industrial regulations.
Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides.
Labor groups say that of the 30 workers taken by authorities, the whereabouts of 20 are still not known. They were employed at factories mainly run by Chinese companies, in joint ventures with partners based in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma. Some of those Burmese partners are believed to have close ties to the country’s military.
Growing pressure to end strikes
In an announcement broadcast on state television late Monday, the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security called the industrial actions violent and said they were hurting profits, damaging the country's image and chasing away foreign investors.
The workers do not see it that way and those in Shwepyitha township from three companies -- E-Land Myanmar, Ford Glory Garment and Costec International -- have dug in alongside a fetid and trash-strewn gutter adjacent to the E-Land factory.
“The government is not on our side at all. They only protect the factory owners. No one is on our side except for ordinary people,” contended Moh Moh Lwin, 18, a striking E-Land worker. “Even the local authorities side with the factories. We heard that the factories bribed the local police to attack us.”
The $15 to $20 a month the young woman sends home to her village in the Magway division in central Myanmar support her parents and three younger sisters.
In these ramshackle industrial zones, factories generally employ teenaged women who earn less than $1.50 per day during their regular shift, although opportunities to earn overtime pay are ample. The workers are striking for an additional base pay of about $30 per month.
The gates of the E-Land factory reopened Sunday. But E-Land General Manager Kyaw Tun Min, in a notice posted on the front gates, declared that the company would only consider the salary demands if the workers returned.
However, security guards said none of the workers showed up.
Neither was any representative of management on site, according to the guards. Phone calls went unanswered to the two numbers listed on the notice signed by the general manager.
E-Land is South Korea's largest integrated fashion and retail company in terms of revenue.
Plainclothes police patrol strike sites
The presence of a Western journalist and a Myanmar national videographer attracted the attention a team of immigration officials who had been hanging around the strike camp, along with other undercover officers.
Myanmar has a history of deporting labor and human rights activists. Two Spanish photographers were deported this month after covering student protests without journalist visas, according to the Ministry of Information.
The mood is one of resignation and relief in the nearby Hlaing Thar Yar industrial zone, where Tai Yi footwear factory workers have agreed to accept a new monthly base pay of about $50, up from just under $40.
They began returning to assembly lines on Tuesday.
Myanmar’s undefined minimum wage
Tai Yi’s workers went on strike in 2011 when they were making just $0.70 per 12-hour shift. That was the same year workers in Myanmar were granted the right to strike (with three days advance notice in the private sector and 14 days advance notice in the public sector) and allowed to form labor unions.
Myanmar's political opening has drawn strong interest from foreign investors. Ma Moe Wai, a Tai Yi factory worker leading the strike, said they remained welcome, as long as they provided fair compensation and rights.
“In our country factory workers earn very little and we don’t have many opportunities to find better jobs,” she said. “Most factories pay the same because the minimum wage has not yet been set by the government.”
Myanmar’s parliament did approve a minimum wage law two years ago. But the Labor Ministry has been moving quite slowly towards reaching a rate, saying it still needs to conduct more research, which in the meantime means more friction between factory owners and laborers.