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Myanmar Warns Workers to End Strikes


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Union leader Ma Moe Wai of the Tai Yi footwear factory workers speaks to her colleagues about their
new wage contract. (Steve Herman/VOA News)
<>1/5 Disable CaptionsLabor Unrest in Myanmar

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February 24, 2015 1:48 AM

YANGON
Myanmars 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 countrys 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 countrys 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 are 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 trashstrewn 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, contends 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 dollars 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
one-and-a-half dollars 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 dollars 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.

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 dollars, up from
just under 40 dollars.

They began returning to assembly lines on Tuesday.

Myanmars Undefined Minimum Wage

Tai Yis 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, says they remain welcome, as long as they provide fair compensation
and rights.

In our country factory workers earn very little and we dont 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.

Myanmars 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.

Steve Herman
A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in
Bangkok.
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