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Justice for Workers in Burma: 3,600 Workers Protest for Worker Rights

Joint statement of civil society on 22nd February 2010

On 8/2/2010, about 3,600 factory workers, mostly women, from 3 factories in the Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone in Rangoon, Burma, protested against low wages and the substandard working conditions they are forced to endure in the factories.

It was reported that the workers at the Taiyee shoe factory and the Opal 2 garment factory began protests on 8 Feb calling for higher daily wages, overtime payments and several other demands. On Tuesday, workers from the Kya Lay garment factory joined the strike action.

The workers, mostly women, staged protests outside the factories and inside a factory compound, where they sat down and refused to work. The three factories employ a total of about 3,600 workers.

The monthly income of most factory workers in Burma is very low, ranging from 20,000 kyat [USD20] to 40,000 kyat [USD40], thus forcing many workers to work overtime. Most workers work from 7 am to 11 pm daily. Many factory owners employ temporary workers who have no legal recourse if they are fired without compensation, according to former factory workers in Rangoon. More than 80 percent of factory workers in Rangoon work on a day-to-day basis. Most are young women between 15 and 27 years of age who come from the countryside in search of a better living.

[The Irrawaddy, Authorities Threaten Violence at Rangoon Strike – http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=17771]

The workers’ demands in these actions, for example, with regard to wages, as was reported, are for a mere USD10 increase per month.

The Burmese government’s response to this legitimate industrial action by workers was excessive and oppressive. It was reported that, the “…Authorities used barbed wire barricades to block roads leading to the factories in the Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone in the city’s north-east, and more than 50 truckloads of riot police carrying batons and shields were deployed and at least six fire engines and five prison vans were parked near the factories…” [AP – Straits Times, 10/2/2010, Myanmar workers on strike]

On 19 Feb, although the workers are back in the factories, they continue demanding for their rights. In Burma, they are even more vulnerable and powerless without a change in the existing laws to allow the right to assembly and to allow workers the right to form unions.

Burma is a member of ASEAN, and as such we call upon ASEAN and all ASEAN member countries to do the needful to ensure that workers in Burma, just like other workers in other ASEAN countries, also receive just wages, have a safe and healthy working environment, enjoy the right to form unions and all other universally acknowledged worker and human rights.

We also call on ASEAN, and ASEAN member countries to closely monitor the current situation at the Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone, and ensure that these workers rights are recognized and respected, and that the Burmese government refrains from further interfering in this pursuit of rights by workers in Burma.

Further, on 23 October 2009, the Heads of State/Government of ASEAN presided over the Inaugural Ceremony of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), during which they also announced the “Cha-am Hua Hin Declaration on the Inauguration of the AICHR” to pledge full support to this new ASEAN body and emphasize their commitment to further develop cooperation to promote and protect human rights in the region.

Noting that the primary purpose of the AICHR is to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of the peoples of ASEAN, we hope that the AICHR will begin proving that it is not merely a toothless tiger by ensuring that the human rights of these workers in Burma are promoted and protected.

Many ASEAN member countries, like Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, invest significantly in Burma. We hope that these economic and other self-interest considerations will not affect the way ASEAN, and its member nations, response to human rights violations of the ordinary people and workers in ASEAN.