Factory workers strike at Hi-Mo wig factory.
Burma has been nudging the door open to foreign investment since President Thein Sein's government took office in March 2011. Hundreds of international business people, foreign companies and world leaders are clamouring to invest in the country. But the benefits of economic reform in Burma do not seem to have filtered down to factory workers. Wages in Burma are amongst the lowest in the world; between 50,000 Kyats (38 euros) and 80,000 Kyats (61 euros) per month, though salaries differ according to the skills and experiences of the workers.
The Burma National Assembly adopted a new Law on Minimum Wages on 22 March this year, bringing the minimum wage up to 43,000 kyat. But despite this small step forward, employers’ response to those workers demanding higher salaries are not always very progressive.
Despite feeling exploited by employers in the past, Burmese workers never dared to complain in public. But now that people have plucked up the courage for greater freedom of expression, worker strikes are on the rise. Protests have taken place almost every month since early this year.
In February, thousands of workers at the Tai Yi Slipper Company in Hlaing Tharyar Township in Yangon went on strike demanding better working conditions and a salary rise. In May, some 45 workers went on hunger strike while about 400 workers also staged a walkout to demand better pay and conditions at the Yangon Crown Steel Factory in Yangon Division. In the same month, 2,000 workers at Hi-Mo Wig Factory also went on strike over pay and working conditions. These protests ended when a deal was brokered, though the employers reneged on their promise of higher wages. This story of broken promises is extremely common in Burma.
On 2 August, some 35 garment workers at Delta Industrial Group (DIG) in Panthein town, Irrawaddy Division stopped showing up for work, in protest at their employer’s decision to pay them just 60,000 kyats a month.
"We are waiting to find out whether we have been fired"
Shwe Zin is one of the workers involved.
The DIG manufacturing factory agreed to pay workers 60,000 Kyats as basic salary and 10,000 Kyats for good attendance. So I expected to get paid 70,000 Kyats per month in total. But me and my colleagues didn’t get paid what they were promised; only receiving the basic salary of 60,000 Kyats a month.Because of our act of protest, we were not allowed to resume our jobs when we tried to return for work on Tuesday. Our manager told us that we had to await a decision by the DIG board committee as to whether we would all be fired. Our fates are now in the hands of our employer. We are now very worried about losing our jobs because it is so hard to find a new job; many people in the Irrawaddy Division where I’m from are unemployed.At the factory, we have to work six days a week - from Monday to Saturday - our working hours are from 8 a.m to 4 p.m (7 hours a day). Despite the economic reform in Burma, nothing has changed for ordinary workers. They have to work hard but get paid very little.Due to cheap working conditions in Burma with so little protection for workers, many Burmese people cross into neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and China to work. Most Burmese migrants go to Thailand to work in Thai industries and factories. Many of them risk their lives as they cross the border illegally. They are also vulnerable to arrest by Thai police when they arrive due to illegal status. But the risk often pays off; they find Thailand is better than their country. There are about two million Burmese migrant workers who work legally and illegally in Thailand. Despite reforms that are being put in place in Burma, the migrant workers didn't return home and prefer to work in Thailand.All 35 of us working in my factory are university graduates, myself included. Even though I studied hard for my degree, it is really difficult to get a decent job with a good wage in Burma.And it seems like Burmese workers are always on the losing side: if they keep quiet, they get exploited but if they complain, they too are sacked. But I’m not giving up hope, one day there will better working conditions and better wages in my country.
A female worker and her husband in the outskirts of Yangon.
A group of construction workers in a harbour on the banks of the Yangon River.
Workers at a wood factory on the outskirts of Yangon.