Activists skeptical that reform will come, vow to keep striking until all Myanmar political prisoners released.
Ye Naing Win walked out of Myingyan Prison in 2005, expecting to conduct his labour activism in secret for the rest of his life. Before his arrest in 1997, he was forced to operate under an alias, reporting human rights abuses in workplaces during Myanmar’s 50-year military dictatorship.
“The military drove people from villages to rogue army bases and forced them to build or be punished severely. I worked underground, collecting data for international NGOs. Now, I don’t need to sneak around so much – workers have rights,” Ye Naing Win told Al Jazeera.
He does not like to talk about the beatings and isolation he experienced during his nearly nine years as one of more than 7,000 political prisoners in Myanmar. But he acknowledges that his incarceration shaped him into the labour activist he is today.
“A group of us in prison made a pact to build a labour movement if we were ever released. We were once workers, all of us wanted democracy, so we talked about worker rights. It gave us hope,” says Ye Naing Win.
Labour activism came out from the shadows once the Labour Organization Law came into effect in April 2012, a landmark piece of legislation passed by former General Thein Sein’s transitional government legalising all union activity in a rapidly industrialising Myanmar.
Hundreds of large-scale factories have boomed with foreign investment since international sanctions were lifted later that year to reward the military’s shift to semi-democratic rule.
With the newly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) party taking control of parliament this February, manufacturing in Myanmar is expected to develop even further. The garment industry, in particular, has blossomed and is estimated to expand from 260,000 to more than 600,000 workers by 2018.
Wages remain one of the chief complaints of factory workers. The current daily minimum wage of 3,600 Myanmar Kyats a day ($3), is still considered “too low to cover basic costs”, according to a 2015 report from Oxfam, an aid and development charity.
The challenge for the labour movement has been amassing a large enough collection of workers to influence policy change, like another national wage raise.
Many workers still fear losing their job if they join a union, though such terminations have been illegal since the 2012 labour law went into effect.
“Employer retaliation is still a reality,” Natsu Nogami, a senior legal adviser with the International Labour Organization, told Al Jazeera. Those who unionise can “face the threat of termination, some have even been placed on an industry-wide blacklist to prevent future employment”.
Cooperative Committee of Trade Unions (CCTU), the organisation, launched by Ye Naing Win and the former inmates of Myingyan Prison, is one of several labour rights NGOs offering free consultation to factory workers interested in unionising.
According to the organisation, CCTU is not a union, preferring an advisory role for workers. The weak union presence in Myanmar, however, has drawn CCTU into union-like roles for workers who want to take legal action but do not want to do so on their own.
“The laws no longer send you to prison, but they are still weak for workers,” says Ye Naing Win. “If prison gave me anything, it was time to think about how to build a labour movement when the law does not protect you.”
With limited resources and access to politicians, groups such as CCTU spend most of their time helping workers with “dispute settlements”, legal conflicts involving issues such as unlawful termination, withheld pay or severe injury on the job.
“Most workers don’t know their rights, so they call us for help when they are in an impossible situation,” says Ye Naing Win.
CCTU has garnered a reputation for employing unconventional tactics, mainly the use of media and public pressure to leverage factory management into compensation. One of their high-profile cases was Zin Mar Htwe, a young girl who lost her arm in 2014 in a hydraulic press on her fifth day working at the Shin Yet steel factory outside of Mandalay.
“I thought I did something wrong,” Zin Mar Htwe told Al Jazeera. “CCTU pushed me to speak out to make sure the same thing would not happen to others.”
The Chinese factory owners covered her meals and medical costs while she was treated in hospital, “which is all factories can be expected to do,” Chit Ko, one of the Shin Yet managers, told Al Jazeera. But Zin Mar Htwe’s family needed additional compensation, though they knew it would be difficult.
She was not an official employee at the time, and like many workers in Myanmar, she was under aged. At 14 years old, she was one year shy of the country’s legal age to work full-time and had agreed to an under-the-table deal to get on the assembly line.
There is a formal system to adjudicate dispute settlements in an arbitration process where representatives of labour, business and government rule whether compensation is warranted.
CCTU and other labour activist groups, however, are hesitant to trust the legal channel as employers often ignore rulings they disagree with by paying a maximum fine of one million kyats ($770).
“If we didn’t get involved, the owners would have just paid the fine to avoid the payment in arbitration,” says Ye Naing Win. “I told Zin Mar Htwe’s family, sometimes you must work outside of the law if want justice.”
CCTU launched a media campaign, a tactic that the group is known for, but has faced criticism for “escalating the situation needlessly”, according to Chit Ko from factory management.
“We were always acting in accordance with the law,” the Shin Yet manager added.
“I Want My Hand Back” became the informal slogan for Zin Mar Htwe’s case. Her emaciated arm was featured on two local news channels and went viral on Facebook after CCTU spread word to prominent literary and social media figures, who posted poems and essays about Zin Mar Htwe.
The factory owners eventually agreed to a settlement almost a year later of eight million kyats ($6,160), according to CCTU’s internal records, all of which went to Zin Mar Htwe’s family.
“I lost my hand; my life will be difficult even with this compensation,” Zin Mar Htwe told Al Jazeera from her small wooden home. “I did not win anything.”
CCTU is not the only labour rights NGO operated by former political prisoners. There are at least four labour rights NGOs that conduct nearly identical work to CCTU, but rather than cooperate, each group chooses to simply coexist.
“We were all activists before we were prisoners. Prison just made us more determined to finish our work in this new Burma, but each of us has different methods,” Thurein Aung told Al Jazeera.
Thurein Aung started Action Labour Rights (ALR) after he spent five years in Insein Prison for participating in a Labour Day rally outside of the US Embassy in 2000.
ALR is also weary of the arbitration process, but has had success winning financial settlements through the legal channel. In 2015, ALR helped 220 workers of the TOP Garment factory articulate their grievances through arbitration after they were denied wages for more than 30 days of work, before the factory closed later that year.
“I was confident TOP workers had enough evidence to win in the arbitration process. My job was to ensure that the employer would comply,” Thurein Aung says.
As the workers went through months of court-like hearings, ALR worked behind the scenes, a role the group prefers. They trained workers how to effectively articulate their grievances to the arbitration council and media outlets, while investigating the past dealings of factory ownership.
“We are strong researchers. ALR found previous complaints of the factory owners violating minimum-wage law; it helped us prove that these workers were not the first victims,” says Thurein Aung
In the end, the arbitration council ruled for a 39 million kyat ($30,000) settlement for the workers, which management paid in full.
While ALR was successful in helping the Top Garment Union win a large amount of money, some view these individual victories as coming at the expense of the greater labour movement.
TOP Garment was initially represented by the largest union group in the country, the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM), which represents close to half of all unions and has the backing of global institutions such as the UN’s International Labour Organization.
“CTUM wanted us to accept half of what we ended up winning as an independent union,” Moe Sandar Myint, the president of the TOP Garment Union at the time, told Al Jazeera.
Maung Maung, president of CTUM, shares a contentious relationship with the labour activist community. He is not a former political prisoner. Instead, he spent 20 years in exile in Thailand, where he garnered the training and financial support of the international NGO community.
Maung Maung admits that his focus is not on individual dispute settlements, but building a labour movement large enough to achieve policy change that will affect all workers. In his estimation, only 300,000 workers of the more than 20 million national workplaces have been unionised.
“Constructive social dialogue” with employers is a priority for CTUM which, according to Maung Maung, was instrumental to the recent increase in the minimum wage to 3,600 kyats ($3) a day. CTUM was one of the only labour representatives present in minimum wage discussions in 2015 but was not involved in the numerous worker protests at the time.
“When we have good industrial relations, we can achieve better jobs and better wages,” Maung Maung told Al Jazeera. “It’s globalisation. We have to think about how to deal with multinationals. If your workforce isn’t prepared, you are not going to survive.”
Labour activists are adamant that they do not seek tensions with employers, but they see CTUM as preventing unions from properly representing their workers in order to maintain positive relations between business and government.
“I will use the system but will work outside of the council and politicians if needed. I have led many protests and strikes in factories and outside of them. I will do so again if I have to”, says Ye Naing Win. “I cannot say CTUM will do the same”.
Minimum wage and dispute settlements are some of the laws that are scheduled for amendment, according to Thet Naing Oo, a senior adviser of the Myanmar Chamber of Commerce (UMFCCI), which participates in legislative discussions.
The role of the newly elected National League for Democracy party in these labour reforms remains unclear. All significant labour legislation was passed when parliament was controlled by the military-backed Union and Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) party before February.
“We haven’t seen many changes to labour law or new amendments under the new government [NLD] yet”, Moe Moe Thwin, the director of the Yangon District’s Ministry of Labour, told Al Jazeera.
The Ministry of Labour, the executive agency that enforces labour law, is still led by a USDP member. Transfer of power to the NLD is expected eventually. “Once new members of government understand labour law, they can participate more in the reform process,” says Thet Naing Oo.
“I hate to say it, but for labour, the USDP is better to work with, they are just more organised. NLD members are not knowledgeable on labour issues. But of course we support them, the alternative is military rule”, says Ye Naing Win.
While Ye Naing Win voted for the NLD in the historic elections in 2015, he admits that the party has been difficult to communicate with on issues such as unlawful terminations and a dysfunctional arbitration process. However, the lack of political support does not affect CCTU in his eyes.
“We believe in a worker-led labour movement”, says Ye Naing Win “The one thing we teach our workers is that change comes from them pushing politicians to act, you should never wait for them”.
Additional reporting by Max Travers.