Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Burma: Reviving trade unions - ILO’s foray into political minefield

By Marwaan Macan-Markar - IPS

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS )copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

BANGKOK, (IPS) - Nearly 50 years after a Burmese military regime crushed what was once a vibrant trade union movement in the South-east Asian country, hints of a revival are beginning to emerge.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is exploiting a provision in Burma’s 2008 constitution to pave the way for trade union activity that has been banned by successive juntas to keep a tight lid on any dissent.

"The new constitution says that workers have a right to organise and have workers’ representatives," said Steve Marshall, the ILO’s liaison officer in Burma. "We are pushing to use this provision to secure the rights for trade unions."

But in doing so, the ILO has to grapple with less promising features in the controversial constitution. This charter, approved in a referendum plagued with fraud, contains broad language that supports the use of repressive measures if the government detects threats to the country’s national security and stability.

The ILO’s mission in Burma, also known as Myanmar, has been emboldened by what it views as a shift in the regime’s stance towards labour rights activities. This is in light of the Burmese government’s official response to an application made in June by seven labour organisers to register a workers’ union – the Burma National Labour Union.

"They were not arrested," Marshall told a group of journalists in Bangkok, contrasting this with the standard repressive measures the junta uses to go after any individual deemed a threat to its iron grip on power. "They were asked to be patient and wait till a new trade union law is approved."

News of the planned trade union law emerged in January, with the junta announcing that the draft law would be approved when the parliament meets following this year’s promised general elections. The ILO has offered to help the regime in this rare move towards organised labour rights activity.

The ILO’s foray into this political minefield comes in the wake of the Geneva-based body’s expansion of its mandate to secure change in Burma. In June, at its mid-year session in the Swiss city, the ILO expanded its role in Burma to "include freedom of association" issues in addition to its challenge of cracking down on forced labour and the use of child soldiers since it established a foothold in the country nearly a decade ago.

The whiff of a possible return of organised labour movements in Burma is also rooted in a rare spate of wildcat strikes that spread across the industrialised zones around Rangoon, the former capital, from November 2009 till March this year.

Such work stoppages, led by the largely women workforce in garment and footwear factories, have not been witnessed in the country in nearly 20 years. The strikers, who held their protests by sitting on the grounds inside their factory compounds, were demanding better basic wages and overtime payments, and a reduction of working hours.

In one South Korean-owned factory, nearly 2,000 workers joined a sudden labour stoppage. But they were not attacked by armed troops.

Besides calling in the police to maintain order in cases like this, the junta opted to pressure the strike-hit companies to solve labour disputes with the strikers’ representatives instead of stepping into the fray. The companies in the industrialised zones are among the estimated 130 garment factories in Burma employing close to 50,000 workers.

But these open acts of dissent reportedly unnerved the junta, currently preparing to hold the general elections in 2010 to gain international legitimacy. This year’s poll comes two decades after Burma’s last election, the results of which the junta refused to recognise.

Yet veteran Burmese trade union activists are not surprised by the wildcat strikes. "We had been expecting these protests because of the rising cost of living and the inability to pay for basic items with small wages," said Maung Maung, general secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma (FTUB), a coalition of Burmese workers’ groups operating in exile. "One day, about 10,000 workers put down their tools."

That the strikers were able to get away without an iron-fisted response by the junta may have to do with who some of the striking women were, Maung Maung revealed in a telephone interview from a location outside Thailand. "Some of them were wives, sisters and daughters of the soldiers," he said. "The troops have been complaining that their families are starving because of the rising cost of food prices, and that their women are being forced into prostitution."

Yet this year’s stirring of dissenting workers and the ILO’s expanded mandate do not mean that the culture of trade unionism is on the way to being restored to what it was in Burma till 1962, when the military, led by Gen Ne Win, staged a coup and proceeded to decimate university student unions and trade unions.

"The legal and political situation needs to be clear and that requires the Burmese government meeting its obligations under ILO Convention 87, which it ratified in 1955," said Phil Robertson, the deputy director at the Asia division for Human Rights Watch, a New York-based global rights lobby. The ILO’s Convention 87 guarantees freedom of association.

"This year’s wildcat strikes revealed the reality. There was no protection for workers to freely and independently exercise their concerns," he told IPS. "There were no leaders who emerged among the strikers because they knew their actions were illegal."