Policy Brief: Workers’ rights in Myanmar

by Megan Buxton

Background

Myanmar has made giant constitutional steps in the right direction when concerning workers’ rights. The ILO, which Myanmar joined as a member state in 1948 has helped to make these improvements.[1] Under the preceding military regime which lasted from 1962 until 2011, there was little indication that the repressive government was willing to make the necessary changes to support its labour force. Under the old regime forced labour was used as a tool in state building. Civilians were forced to construct roads and other large-scale infrastructure projects, unpaid prison labour was used in mines and children as young as eleven were forcibly recruited into the army. In response, the ILO was pushed in 2000 to invoke Article 33 for the first time in history. Article 33 allows the Governing Body to impose any measures it deems necessary, including sanctions, to put pressure on states which do not conform to labour standards.[2]

Slowly, changes began to materialise. In 2002 the government gave the ILO permission to open a liaison office in its capital, Yangon, where it actively supports workers. Its complaints system has been effective in bringing to light the abuses committed against workers. The ILO was also granted relatively free access to travel to different districts across Myanmar to conduct surveys, collect data and raise awareness of international labour standards.[3]

By 2011 Myanmar held its first democratic election. President Thein Sein was elected to office and proceeded to release political prisoners, ease media censorship and put in place measures to protect workers. By 2012 workers were able, by law, to strike and collectively bargain. This new found platform for workers was confirmed in 2013 when 500 labour organisations cooperated with Myanmar’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industries on labour standards and freedom of association.[4]  This demonstrated that necessary reforms were being made as freedom of association is the foundational right which enables social dialogue on future policy, the negotiation of wages, occupational safety and other features inherent within ‘decent work’.[5] Furthermore, at the 328th Governing Body meeting held in November 2016, Myanmar committed itself to ending all forced labour within its borders.[6] Since April 2016 the use of the ILO’s complaints system saw the prosecution and conviction of many who were complicit in the use of forced labour.[7]

Foreign Direct Investment

Despite this progress, workers continue to be exploited. Firstly, the Myanmar government, if it wishes to truly combat labour exploitation, must focus on providing social security for its population. The rise of exploitative contracts, human trafficking, child labour and forced labour can all be linked back to poverty and vulnerability – especially in an age of heightened free-market capitalism. Myanmar’s poor literacy rate has limited the employment opportunities for the population, especially of those living in rural areas. High youth unemployment means that multinationals are able to access a reservoir of efficient and hardworking labourers. Vast numbers in poverty, as well as growing inequality, mean that there are many who are on the edge of desperation with few alternatives.[8] These factors combined make Myanmar an ideal environment for agribusiness, mining and manufacturing to flourish. National wage levels, being one of the few flexible costs, are the determining factor for a multinational deciding where to locate its primary production.[9] The current minimum wages stands at a mere $3.20 a day, placing Myanmar in the global top five for cheap labour according to the Labour Costs Index.[10] As stated by the International Trade Union Confederation it is viewed as the ‘newest low-cost manufacturing hub.’[11] In addition, the structural ‘disconnect’ between the policies created by central government and the practices of local authorities, who either choose to ignore the law or are unaware of it entirely, mean that multinationals are able to illegally exploit labour whilst often escaping punishment.[12] It is no surprise that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) amounted to $8 billion between 2014 and 2015 – double the amount than the total level of FDI between 1988 and 2012.[13]

Labour exploitation within supply chains.

Freedom of association: As stated earlier, Myanmar has made progressive constitutional steps, however many of these new laws and regulations are not implemented throughout the supply chains of large corporations. Despite legal changes that allow workers to organise, companies are finding loopholes which seek specifically to isolate workers from one another. For instance, within the regulations on collective bargaining, it states that workers may only organise alongside workers within the same trade activity. Yet, employers have been very restrictive in their definitions of various trades, refusing to allow workers to unionise on the basis that they do not technically perform the same trade activity. Additionally, ILO standards state that an employer may not dismiss a worker if they join a union. However, no labour standards protect workers against forced transfers to another factory location, often removing them from their entire social network and their union.[14]

Precarious work: Investors have made work deliberately precarious in Myanmar. 56% of the national workforce have only an oral job contract, whilst another 31% do not even know their job contract.[15] For this reason it is highly likely that employers will not fulfil their obligations towards their employees.  In addition, 79% of rural workers and 58% of all urban workers negotiate their contract on a daily basis, meaning that employers are not liable for unfair dismissal if they only hire workers for short time periods.[16] These contracts often do not specify the level of pay, the number of working hours, grounds for dismissal or social security. Complaints submitted to a 2016 tripartite meeting in September reflected these abuses as they extended from pay below the minimum wage, unfair dismissal, no provision of social protection, to unpaid overtime.[17] Garments factories within Gap’s supply chain, have been found to force workers into compulsory overtime beyond legal limits under poor health and safety conditions, whilst H&M and Primark refused to disclose any information altogether.[18]

Land confiscation: Land, previously confiscated or ‘grabbed’ by the military, is now often being grabbed by multinationals. The construction of Thilowa and Kyaukphyu, two Special Economic Zones (SEZs) have displaced communities.[19] Because 50% of household income in rural areas derives from agriculture, these displaced communities, having had their means of income generation taken away, were forced to work in factories within these SEZs.[20] Furthermore, investors have grabbed land in areas with high ethnic tensions, reducing already scarce resources, and worsening the conflict between ethnic communities.[21]

Forced labour:  Oil companies such as Chevron and Shell are known to be colluding with Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), a military-operated mining company that uses forced prison labour. Similarly, Wanbao, a Chinese mining company, has been using forced labour provided by the military to extract copper out of the Monywa copper mine.[22] Thus, despite promises made by the government, state institutions continue to be complicit in the use of forced labour.

A future towards decent work

Ultimately, Myanmar is facing new challenges. Powerful multinationals have been able to shape labour relations, meaning that the government’s ability to control labour practices has been compromised. Though accounts of forced labour have been decreasing, it has been replaced by new forms of exploitation. The ILO, with extensive knowledge about the results of such neoliberal structural transformations, drafted an Action Plan. To facilitate the continued use of the complaints system and the mobilisation of tripartite social dialogue, the ILO is geared towards raising awareness within predominantly isolated areas where labour exploitation is prevalent. The ILO plans to raise awareness by training government officials, police personnel, civil society groups and local authorities about the rights that workers are entitled to and the means by which workers can mobilise. The ILO also plans to erect 112 billboards across four districts which will provide information on forced labour and the existence of the ILO as a body which can support workers.[23] Community activists who work closely with the ILO often have direct experiences of exploitation in Myanmar. With such local knowledge the ILO is in a far better position counter the practices of exploitative multinationals by putting first-hand experiences at the forefront of their community- and policy-based initiatives.[24] For example, by engaging in dialogue with communities Adidas has higher health and safety standards than the standard set by the government. The company has also ensured within its factories that both employers and employees are aware of freedom of association. Similarly, Total, a multinational oil company renowned for its use of forced labour in the past, now uses none. The multinational also engages in social dialogue within communities in order to be fully aware of their land tenure rights before excavating.[25]

It is too soon to say whether industries across the board will follow the lead of Adidas and Total in Myanmar. With the increase in FDI it is imperative that workers’ voices do not get drowned out by powerful businesses. Yet, as a local activist said, ‘[t]he victims are no longer afraid… Now, they are confident.’[26] If the ILO is able to maintain its support for workers it will continue to instil confidence within them. This confidence alone is progress and may ensure that workers’ rights move further from the periphery and closer to the centre of production.

Bibliography:

ILO. (2017). Follow up to the resolution concerning remaining measures on the subject of Myanmar adopted by the Conference at its 102nd session (2013). Geneva: International Labour Office.

ILO. (2017). ILO member States in Asia and the Pacific. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

ITUC. (2015). Foreign Direct Investment in Myanmar: what impact on human rights?. Brussels: International Trade Union Confederation.

ILO. (2012). Strategy for the Elimination of Forced Labour (Joint Government of the Republic of Union of Myanmar and International Labour Organization). Yangon: International Labour Organization.

CSO & MOLESS. (2015). Myanmar labour force, child labour and school to work transition survey 2015. Yangon: Central Statistical Organization and Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security.

ILO. (2016). Stakeholders Forum on Labour Law Reform and Institutional Capacity Building. Yangon: International Labour Organization.

Poole, M. (2013). Myanmar turns a corner. World of Work. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

Steyne, S. (2017). Talk with S. Steyne. 14 March, Geneva.

Verisk Maplecroft. (2015). Latest Products and Reports. Verisk Maplecroft. [Online]. 14 February. [Accessed: 25 March 2017]. Available from: <https://www.maplecroft.com/portfolio/new-analysis/2015/02/04/labour-costs-lowest-myanmar-bangladesh-and-cambodia-least-competitive-italy-france-global-ranking/&gt;.

 

[1] ILO. (2017). ILO member States in Asia and the Pacific. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

[2] Poole, M. (2013). Myanmar turns a corner. World of Work. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Steyne, S. (2017). Talk with S. Steyne. 14 March, Geneva.

[6] ILO. (2017). Follow up to the resolution concerning remaining measures on the subject of Myanmar adopted by the Conference at its 102nd session (2013). Geneva: International Labour Office.

[7] Poole, M. (2013). Myanmar turns a corner. World of Work. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

[8] CSO & MOLESS. (2015). Myanmar labour force, child labour and school to work transition survey 2015. Yangon: Central Statistical Organization and Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security.

[9] Steyne, S. (2017). Talk with S. Steyne. 14 March, Geneva.

[10] Verisk Maplecroft. (2015). Latest Products and Reports. Verisk Maplecroft. [Online]. 14 February. [Accessed: 25 March 2017]. Available from: <https://www.maplecroft.com/portfolio/new-analysis/2015/02/04/labour-costs-lowest-myanmar-bangladesh-and-cambodia-least-competitive-italy-france-global-ranking/&gt;.

[11] ITUC. (2015). Foreign Direct Investment in Myanmar: what impact on human rights?. Brussels: International Trade Union Confederation, p. 15.

[12] Poole, M. (2013). Myanmar turns a corner. World of Work. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

[13] ITUC. (2015). Foreign Direct Investment in Myanmar: what impact on human rights?. Brussels: International Trade Union Confederation.

[14] Ibid.

[15] CSO & MOLESS. (2015). Myanmar labour force, child labour and school to work transition survey 2015. Yangon: Central Statistical Organization and Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security.

[16] Ibid.

[17] ILO. (2016). Stakeholders Forum on Labour Law Reform and Institutional Capacity Building. Yangon: International Labour Organization.

[18] ITUC. (2015). Foreign Direct Investment in Myanmar: what impact on human rights?. Brussels: International Trade Union Confederation.

[19] Ibid.

[20] CSO & MOLESS. (2015). Myanmar labour force, child labour and school to work transition survey 2015. Yangon: Central Statistical Organization and Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security.

[21] ITUC. (2015). Foreign Direct Investment in Myanmar: what impact on human rights?. Brussels: International Trade Union Confederation.

[22] Ibid.

[23] ILO. (2012). Strategy for the Elimination of Forced Labour (Joint Government of the Republic of Union of Myanmar and International Labour Organization). Yangon: International Labour Organization.

[24] Poole, M. (2013). Myanmar turns a corner. World of Work. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

[25] ITUC. (2015). Foreign Direct Investment in Myanmar: what impact on human rights?. Brussels: International Trade Union Confederation.

[26] Poole, M. (2013). Myanmar turns a corner. World of Work. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

__________________

Megan Buxton is a final year undergraduate studying Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield.

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