Ye Yint Khant Maung discusses the hardships unionists face during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On International Workers’ Day, May 1, President U Win Myint offered a statement about the government’s commitment to tranquil workplaces, fair and proper dispute settlement processes, freedom for independent trade unions, and workers’ safety through tripartite efforts. However, the message had a caveat: “You [Workers] also need to be especially aware that outside instigators can incite unlawful demonstrations and unrest for personal or political gains.” Indeed, if the government is effectively protecting labor rights and is dedicated to tripartite efforts, then there seems no need or justification for protest. But the government’s rhetoric is a far cry from reality.
The government has, in fact, dismissed unionists’ suggestions, disregarded their formal disputes, and used COVID-19 to justify intimidation and arrests of protestors. Employers have ignored COVID-19 related concerns raised by unionists, exploited their inability to strike, and used the pandemic as an opportunity to sack unionists en masse. The government and employers have weaponized COVID-19 to union-bust so that unionists have had to scramble and employ different tactics to protect themselves and other workers.
The government sidelines workers’ concerns
Every four months a National Tripartite Dialogue Forum (NTDF) gathers government, employer and worker representatives. On 25 March 2020, the tripartite forum became a platform to discuss how to manage the potential risks and impact of COVID-19 on workers. In attendance was the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), the Myanmar Industries Craft and the Service-Trade Unions Federation (MICS) and the Agriculture and Farmer Federation of Myanmar (AFFM-TUF). These Federations collectively called for the temporary shutdown of factories, with paid leave in April covered in part by the government. They also called for immediate actions to prevent the targeted termination of unionists without due process. Their recommendations were dismissed entirely.
As the pandemic played out, federations (registered and unregistered) continued to raise concerns about the rights and safety of workers, particularly in relation to crowded workplaces and absent protective equipment. They continued to reiterate the importance of considering the well-being of workers, whether through workplace safety measures or protecting salaries in the case of dismissals or factory closures. Their message was that if workers and unions were protected, there would be no reason to strike.
A worker representative from the CTUM explained that when factories chose to reduce their workforce, employers did not negotiate with the trade union or the Working Condition Committee (WCC). According to the law, employees and employer representatives must form a WCC to solve factory level concerns. However, employers sacked workers as they pleased and targeted unionists. That way, when the factory reopens or increases their workforce, unionists are less likely to be working at the factory. The union then had no choice but to strike. This same scenario continues to play out because there is no formal procedure to manage the dismissal of workers when workforce reduction is necessary. Without governance over dismissal and paid leave, there is nothing to prevent union-busting.
Workers sacked for unionist movement during COVID-19
As for the unions’ recommendation to temporarily close factories in April, government and employer representatives dismissed it as impossible and impractical. At the start of April, driven by urgent concerns about worker safety, some workers protested against unsafe and oppressive workplaces. Four factories from Dagon Seikkan township protested and factories under the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar in Hlaing Thar Yar township campaigned in support of full-salary-factory closure. The factories were temporarily closed due to official Thingyan holidays and government forced closure, without salary compensation. When the factories were reopened, these unionists were dismissed for their strikes and campaigns.
Workers from May Fair Myanmar factory, in Dagon Seikkan township, were protesting for the temporary closure of the factory, safer conditions, and accountability for workplace oppression. 160 workers among about 500 protesting workers were laid off without explanation. Workers tried to solve these problems through formal legal channels with the help of MICS. But, Ko Nay Lin Aung from MICS said, “officials from the labor office told us to charge the employer anywhere, as you’d like. We don’t care.” Yet, the government did care when the workers chose to protest. One worker said, “we tried to initiate a negotiation, but the employer did not show up. We don’t have any options.”
At the start of the dispute, about 500 workers began to strike. 160 workers who led and participated in the protests were dismissed, left without work, and unable to take any actions due to COVID-19 related orders. Five members of MICS were charged for assisting with an unlawful strike. Workers from this factory were left with untenable options like submitting letters to the International Labour Organization and the NLD. Such options might help to get attention from these organizations, but it is certain that the dispute cannot be solved immediately.
Not only did the government fail to protect unionists and workers from wrongful dismissal, it failed to do its normal duty of conciliating labour disputes. Ko Thet Hnin Aung from MICS explained, “If they [government officials] solved 10 disputes per day before COVID-19, they work half of it, 5 disputes per day during this period.” When workers needed the government most, they received even less support than normal.
The government and employers left unionists with no choice but to strike, and to do so illegally. Since 2012, strikes have been illegal unless they occur following a three-day notice and permission from a registered federation according to The Settlement of Labour Dispute Law (2012). By law, the right to strike only comes into effect when the decision of the Arbitration Body is deemed unsatisfactory. But, strikes are a response to pressing concerns and unworkable formal channels.
In Blue Diamond factory in Yangon, Dagon Seikkan Township, workers began striking in the first week of April and the dispute remained when the factory was reopened in May. Workers protested again for full wages for April on 2 May 2020. One worker from Blue Diamond told the media, “When we had nearly reached an agreement with the employer regarding April salaries, police cracked down on us and arrested our leaders and supporters.” Leaders and supporters were arrested and jailed due to COVID-19 related restrictions. The employer filed two more articles against the two leaders for picketing and advocating for protest. There are many stories of unionists being ignored, dismissed, neglected, and then arrested for illegally striking.
About 500 workers from Myanmar Univiews Optical International formed a factory union under the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM), after the first strike of workers for workplace fairness was completed in late March this year. Workers triumphed in their first strike. When an April factory closure was uncertain, the FGWM campaigned. Unionists tried to participate by taking photos with banners at lunch time. Their Chinese employers came and threw their phones to the ground without any discussion. When other workers saw this sight, they chose to strike. 7 union leaders have been dismissed since the event and 335 workers who participated in the strike were dismissed when the factory was reopened in May.
COVID-19 was cited as the justification for the termination of these workers. Ko Htet Hlaing Phyo, chair of the factory union said, “All of the sacked workers are union members. Non-union members got their jobs back.” The sacked workers are still processing their dispute with the Hlaing Thar Yar township conciliation body. When workers approached related government offices, officials continuously told them to go another department. “If there were no COVID-19 related curfews, we would strike. During this period, if we strike, we’ll be arrested. We don’t have many options. We can only wait for the response of the government mechanism,” Ko Htet Hlaing Phyo, sacked leader of the factory union, stated.
Unionists and workers face an impasse
Unionists are scrambling to protect themselves and other workers during the pandemic. Workers from May Fair Myanmar and Blue Diamond went to the ILO, the NLD head office and the Yangon Regional Government to get attention. Now, about 160 unionists from May Fair Myanmar, about 110 unionists from Blue Diamond and about 340 unionists from Myanmar Uniview factory, are waiting for a response from the government. Workers who have been dismissed have been unable to find work elsewhere. They face discrimination and invasions of privacy when applying for new jobs. “Why is our information spreading to other factories? We asked. But the [employer and government] can’t give us an answer,” one worker from Blue Diamond factory said.
Then there is the now-famous case of the dispute at the Myan Mode factory, which fired 520 union members and is withholding March wages. International organizations, the New York Times and other newspapers have picked up the case. The Myan Mode factory is an example of unionists being reinstated after directly engaging the international brand involved, Zara. This tactic has been successful, but a Federation like FGWM needs international connections and support to replicate it. Ko Thurein Aung from Action Labour Right group explains, “We can use these tactics only for the official supplier of famous brands. In usual situations, it is very hard to be successful in the case of sub-contractors or other unknown brands.” Unfortunately, this successful case study does not give much hope as a solution for the scale of injustices unionists and workers are experiencing throughout Myanmar.
COVID-19 has been weaponized by the government and employers to repress unionists. Now the question is whether anyone will be accountable for the ongoing assault on the union movement in Myanmar. Even after COVID-19 related restrictions come to an end, the consequences of union-busting will perpetuate. One thing is for sure, unionists will not go quietly.
(Featured image courtesy of Ye Yint, permission granted by anonymous source)
 Interview with Ko Nay Lin Aung on May 27 2020
 Interview with Ko Thet Hnin Aung on May 28 2020
 Interview with Ko Htet Hlaing Phyo on June 8 2020
 Interview with Ko Thurein Aung on June 8 2020
Ye Yint Khant Maung is a researcher with Yangon-based think-tank Urbanize: Policy Institute for Urban and Regional Planning. He was a student of Yangon University of Economics and Yangon School of Political Science. The author wishes to thank Matthew Mullen for his comments and support in this writing.