MYANMAR: MODERN SLAVERY IN RANGOON’S INDUSTRIAL ZONES

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Date: 18 November Type: Report Source: Burma Partnership Keywords: workers, modern slavery, industrial zones

On 14 November, a group of labor organizations and unions released the English language version of ‘Modern Slavery: A Study of Labour Conditions in Yangon’s Industrial Zones 2012-2013’. The Burmese language version was released in Rangoon on 30 October. Research into the abysmal living and working conditions in the main industrial zones of Rangoon, including Hlaingtharyar, was undertaken by Labor Rights Clinic, Cooperation Programme of Independent Labourers, Construction-based Labour Union and Workers Support Group, as well as other labor unions and activists who wish to remain anonymous.

The report underscores the many challenges that workers face in their daily lives. The typical basic wage is around US$25-US$37 per month, leaving workers little choice but to work an average 11 hours per day, 6 days per week, just to make ends meet. Many, who fail to earn enough to cover their monthly living expenses, turn to pay-day lenders, thereby trapping them in a vicious cycle of debt. A complex system of bonuses, as well as the need for overtime, means that any time taken for sickness or holiday, anything other than 100% punctuality, or any perceived under-performance, means that employers can dock significant amounts of workers’ monthly wages. The report also finds that sanitation and health standards are generally inadequate, that many people live in dirty overcrowded, factory-provided hostels, that women face sexual harassment traveling to and from work, and that factory supervisors are often harsh and ruthless.

As a consequence, over the last two years, labor unions have increasingly taken to fighting for their rights, emerging from the shadow of direct military rule to test the waters in a new political environment. Only as recently as 26 October, about 200 garment workers at ‘Handsome’ factory in Dagon Seikkan township, Rangoon region, called a strike over the sacking of a colleague, Sithu Min, reportedly for refusing to work overtime, and the installation of CCTV cameras near a women’s toilet. However, union members and support groups face dismissal if they are found to be involved in industrial action, and intimidation of these organizations continues, while employers often try to form their own union to forcibly represent the interests of workers and divide the workforce.

Unfortunately workers’ rights are not adequately protected by law. Two new laws promulgated in 2012 – the Labour Organization Law and the Labour Dispute Settlement Law – contain many weaknesses, holes and a lack of concrete protections against dismissal and other negative consequences, which clearly contravene the two relevant ILO Conventions, namely the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (Convention N°87) and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining (Convention N°98).

The struggle for workers in Rangoon’s industrial zones, and indeed everywhere in Burma, will be long and complex. With the imminent onset of a huge increase in foreign direct investment, as well as the government’s plan to establish more industrial and special economic zones in different parts of the country, the garment industry is set to grow substantially over the next few years, which will exacerbate existing problems and tensions unless labor standards are vastly improved. Prevailing corruption and a woeful lack of rule of law are other debilitating factors in this ongoing struggle. Unfortunately, despite some positive noises from the Burma government, there is still a lack of real political will to genuinely protect and promote labor rights, as those with power and money – certainly not the workers – seek to maintain the status quo.

Civil society groups and the international community must continue to pressure the Burma government and parliament to improve labor conditions and protect the rights of workers in Burma. Key legislation must be amended and enacted, including prescribing effective punishment for factory owners who renege on dispute agreements and flout the current laws. International companies – including Western brands – are also in a strong position to use their leverage and ensure that the policies and operations of factories in their supply chains are consistent with international standards as well as domestic law. Furthermore, they must ensure that their factories comply with the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

As we have seen in recent years with health and safety disasters in Bangladesh’s garment factories, and continual protests over sub-standard labor conditions in Cambodia’s factories – both of which have led to fatalities – abiding by labor rights is not just good for workers, it also makes good business sense. At this critical stage in its economic and political development, Burma must ensure that it does not become another Bangladesh or Cambodia. Rather, it has an opportunity to become a leading light in ASEAN, at a time when it holds the ASEAN Chair and prepares the regional grouping for the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015. What better way to set the tone than to establish itself as a beacon of labor rights and economic development? All stakeholders must now strive to make that ideal a reality.

See online : MYANMAR: MODERN SLAVERY IN RANGOON’S INDUSTRIAL ZONES

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