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Vol. 76/No. 12      March 26, 2012

Shoe workers in Myanmar
win pay raise, union rights
Make use of increased political space to organize
Some 1,800 workers at the Tai Yi shoe factory in Rangoon, Myanmar, went on strike for three weeks in February. They won a pay increase and announced the formation of a union. The strike is an indication of how workers in that Southeast Asian country are pressing to broaden the space they have to organize and fight for their interests.

Both Washington and London are taking steps toward opening the doors to U.S. and British investment in Myanmar, also known as Burma. They seek to exploit labor and natural resources and counter the influence of China there after years of imposing economic sanctions against the Burmese regime.

The workers at Tai Yi began their strike Feb. 6 when the Chinese-owned company refused to pay them for a five-day holiday. They demanded a doubling of hourly pay to 150 kyat (about 20 cents) and an increase in monthly bonuses from 6,000 to 8,000 kyat ($10).

“For the Chinese New Year holidays, they deducted 7,000 to 10,000 kyat from our wages,” striker Khaing Khaing New, 26, told The Irrawaddy newspaper. “Every month they manage to deduct something from our wages” for alleged mistakes or for missing work, she said.

Most of the workers are young women from rural areas, many of whom send money home to their families. Some went back to work Feb. 16, after the company offered a small pay raise and threatened to fire strikers. A majority stayed out until Feb. 28, when a township arbitration court said it would rule on their demands. Two days later the court decided that the company should pay a minimum hourly wage of 120 kyat and a monthly bonus of 7,000 kyat.

There have been previous strikes at this factory and others nearby, but this was the longest in years. Workers announced March 4 that they have formed the Tai Yi Footwear Workers Union. They will be testing a law passed last October that legalizes trade unions, which had been effectively banned for 50 years.

Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The government says it is moving to a civilian government. It organized parliamentary elections in 2010—with a quarter of the seats appointed by the military—and released bourgeois opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Retired military officer Thein Sein became president in March 2011, in an attempt to give the regime a “civilian” face. Gen. Than Shwe, however, who ruled for the previous 20 years, retains the power to override laws by decree.

In recent years the government has expanded “special economic zones” to attract more industry, especially from the bordering countries of China, Thailand and India. “With a minimum wage much lower than in Thailand, Burma is an attractive location” for capitalist investment, particularly in food processing and garment manufacturing, the Thai newspaper The Nation noted recently.

The country has substantial oil, gas and mineral resources. A gas pipeline to China is currently under construction.

Both U.S. and European Union officials have said they may ease economic sanctions on Myanmar after April 1 elections for some of the parliamentary seats.

Major capitalists in the United Kingdom, including the construction equipment company J.C. Bamford and the Royal Dutch Shell oil company, have expressed interest in getting into Myanmar. UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell visited the country in recent months. Last December Hillary Clinton made the first visit to Myanmar by a U.S. secretary of state since 1955.
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