Monday, November 18, 2013

Weekly Highlights: Modern Slavery in Rangoon's Industrial Zones


11-17 November 2013

Weekly Highlights

Modern Slavery in Rangoon's Industrial Zones

On 14 November, a group of labor organizations and unions released the English language version of 'Modern Slavery: A Study of Labour Conditions in Yangon's Industrial Zones 2012-2013'. The Burmese language version was released in Rangoon on 30 October. Research into the abysmal living and working conditions in the main industrial zones of Rangoon, including Hlaingtharyar, was undertaken by Labor Rights Clinic, Cooperation Programme of Independent Labourers, Construction-based Labour Union and Workers Support Group, as well as other labor unions and activists who wish to remain anonymous.

The report underscores the many challenges that workers face in their daily lives. The typical basic wage is around US$25-US$37 per month, leaving workers little choice but to work an average 11 hours per day, 6 days per week, just to make ends meet. Many, who fail to earn enough to cover their monthly living expenses, turn to pay-day lenders, thereby trapping them in a vicious cycle of debt. A complex system of bonuses, as well as the need for overtime, means that any time taken for sickness or holiday, anything other than 100% punctuality, or any perceived under-performance, means that employers can dock significant amounts of workers' monthly wages. The report also finds that sanitation and health standards are generally inadequate, that many people live in dirty overcrowded, factory-provided hostels, that women face sexual harassment traveling to and from work, and that factory supervisors are often harsh and ruthless.

As a consequence, over the last two years, labor unions have increasingly taken to fighting for their rights, emerging from the shadow of direct military rule to test the waters in a new political environment. Only as recently as 26 October, about 200 garment workers at 'Handsome' factory in Dagon Seikkan township, Rangoon region, called a strike over the sacking of a colleague, Sithu Min, reportedly for refusing to work overtime, and the installation of CCTV cameras near a women's toilet. However, union members and support groups face dismissal if they are found to be involved in industrial action, and intimidation of these organizations continues, while employers often try to form their own union to forcibly represent the interests of workers and divide the workforce.

Unfortunately workers' rights are not adequately protected by law. Two new laws promulgated in 2012 – the Labour Organization Law and the Labour Dispute Settlement Law – contain many weaknesses, holes and a lack of concrete protections against dismissal and other negative consequences, which clearly contravene the two relevant ILO Conventions, namely the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (Convention N°87) and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining (Convention N°98).

The struggle for workers in Rangoon's industrial zones, and indeed everywhere in Burma, will be long and complex. With the imminent onset of a huge increase in foreign direct investment, as well as the government's plan to establish more industrial and special economic zones in different parts of the country, the garment industry is set to grow substantially over the next few years, which will exacerbate existing problems and tensions unless labor standards are vastly improved. Prevailing corruption and a woeful lack of rule of law are other debilitating factors in this ongoing struggle. Unfortunately, despite some positive noises from the Burma government, there is still a lack of real political will to genuinely protect and promote labor rights, as those with power and money – certainly not the workers – seek to maintain the status quo.

Civil society groups and the international community must continue to pressure the Burma government and parliament to improve labor conditions and protect the rights of workers in Burma. Key legislation must be amended and enacted, including prescribing effective punishment for factory owners who renege on dispute agreements and flout the current laws. International companies – including Western brands – are also in a strong position to use their leverage and ensure that the policies and operations of factories in their supply chains are consistent with international standards as well as domestic law.  Furthermore, they must ensure that their factories comply with the UN's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

As we have seen in recent years with health and safety disasters in Bangladesh's garment factories, and continual protests over sub-standard labor conditions in Cambodia's factories – both of which have led to fatalities – abiding by labor rights is not just good for workers, it also makes good business sense.  At this critical stage in its economic and political development, Burma must ensure that it does not become another Bangladesh or Cambodia. Rather, it has an opportunity to become a leading light in ASEAN, at a time when it holds the ASEAN Chair and prepares the regional grouping for the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015. What better way to set the tone than to establish itself as a beacon of labor rights and economic development? All stakeholders must now strive to make that ideal a reality.

News Highlights


Burma government releases 69 political prisoners including female human rights defender Naw Ohn Hla and two grandsons of former ruler General Ne Win and holds a meeting with leaders from various political parties to discuss plans to release all remaining political prisoners

Inside Burma

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi tells EU delegation that amending the 2008 Constitution is 'imperative' and NLD claims that over 99% of Rangoon opinion poll participants support such measures, however NLD is refused permit to conduct similar poll on constitutional reform in Naypyidaw

Government peace negotiator Aung Min says a federal union entails a federal constitution and a federal army while Chin national groups approve ten constitutional principles at the Chin National Conference in Hakha, capital of Chin state

MPs from Rangoon region urge the Burma government to reestablish the National Investigation Bureau (NIB) for National Security following a series of bomb attacks across Burma in October

Parliament agrees to amend controversial Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says 'reckless' punishments for minor offenses do nothing to promote democracy and also prepares to initiate anti-bribery organization

The Nationwide Women Forum on Peace, Security and Development is initiated to promote the participation of women in politics, peace, development and business

The United Nationalities Federation Council (UNFC) will support ethnic armed groups' Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team but the Restoration Council of the Shan State (RCSS) will only sign ceasefire agreement if talks in Hpa-an, Karen state, guarantee a genuine ceasefire while the Ta'ang National Liberation Army rejects it outright and clashes with the Burma army which continues to attack Kachin Independence Army (KIA) troops in northern Shan state

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) calls on Burma to pursue legal reforms after an OIC delegation spent four days in Burma assessing the plight of the Muslim Rohingya community and was met by angry Buddhist protesters in Sittwe, capital of Arakan state

A delegation of foreign diplomats visit Arakan state to assess the impact of ongoing sectarian clashes between Muslims and Buddhists while Médecins Sans Frontières suspends operations in Pauktaw, Arakan state, after misunderstandings and tensions with Arakan Buddhists

Around 100 police are sent to warn protest camps to disperse from the nearby Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine, Sagaing region, while authorities open fire on protesters injuring at least 7 and security forces also clash with locals just outside Moegyo Pyin village

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi instructs Lawyers' Network to submit detailed reports on cases of over 200 lawyers whose licenses were revoked to the Lower House Committee for Rule of Law and says that the quality of the judiciary needs upgrading and that the rule of law is unsatisfactory

Local Karen leaders and regional government hold talks in Tavoy and agree for local schools to teach Karen language and agree to cooperate on land disputes resulting from land confiscation while Tavoy residents say that development projects are harming livelihoods of local peoples



The alleged mastermind of a plot to bomb the Burma embassy in Indonesia in revenge for the massacre of Rohingya Muslims is on trial

Burma migrants are left in limbo as Burma postpones temporary passports

Burma Parliament accepts US$155 million energy loan from South Korea



Burma and the EU vow to build a strong partnership as the EU offers to send observers to monitor 2015 elections and suggests giving US$850 million more in aid while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi warns EU investors not to ignore political, human rights and rule of law

Former US President Bill Clinton urges reconciliation in Burma on surprise visit but praises political transition, while former British PM Tony Blair follows in Clinton's footsteps

Kachin groups in Australia will boycott Aung San Suu Kyi's visit in protest over her silence over the conflict in Kachin state




Human Rights Abuses Are Rampant in Burma
By Niang Lao Liang Won

The Washington Post

Burma-China-US: The Potential For Triangular Cooperation
By David I. Steinberg
The Rappler

No Peace Without Ethnic Rights
By Tom Fawthrop
Democratic Voice of Burma


Latest from the Blog

Investment at What Cost?
By Burma Partnership


Local farmers in Tavoy township, Tenasserim region, stage protest to demand return of land confiscated by military and associate companies in 1990

Statements and Press Releases

Burma: Release of Prisoners of Conscience Positive But Many Still Locked Up
By Amnesty International

Rights Groups Call on ASEAN to Implement New Declaration on Eliminating Violence Against Women and Children in Accordance with International Standards
By Amnesty International and International Commission of Jurists

Remarks by EU High Representative Catherine Ashton at the Press Conference at the End of the EU-Myanmar Task Force Meeting
By EU High Representative Catherine Ashton

Dispatches: The Political Prisoner Endgame in Burma?
By Human Rights Watch

Burma: Hardship Abound in Violence-Stricken Arakan State
By International Committee of the Red Cross

UNFC Statement on Current Situations
By United Nationalities Federal Council



Modern Slavery: A Study of Labour Conditions in Yangon's Industrial Zones
By Burma Partnership

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