Around 2000 textile factory workers in Rangoon started sit-in strikes the factory compound on Monday evening to demand an increase in salary of 10,000 kyat (US$ 10), a reduction of working hours and the provision of a clean space for meals. The strike started in the Mya Fashion textile factory in Rangoon’s Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone. Later it was joined by workers in Taiyi shoe factory and Opal 2 textile factory and other workers in nearby factories supported them. In December last year, nearly 1,000 textile workers in Hlaing Tharyar also staged a demonstration over pay and working conditions.
Sit-in strikes in Rangoon
According to Reuters News, Burma’s Junta government deployed hundreds of armed riot police on Tuesday in which at least 50 trucks packed with riot police carrying assault rifles and shields were sent out to safeguard roads surrounding the Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone. Members of Union Solidarity and Development Association, a junta-backed organisation, arrived at the scene to warn workers either to disperse peacefully or face a violent crackdown. Police chief Brigadier General Khin Yee also visited the site where the workers were on strike and threatened to take severe action against them if they did not end the strike.
The Irrawaddy News Magazines (INM) reported that the factory workers ended their strike on Wednesday evening after intense negotiations with their employers. It is believed that the junta government officials from the Ministry of Labor were involved to negotiate between the employers and the striking workers. , according to INM, tension remains high although the employers reportedly agreed to a 5,000-kyat (US $5) increase in their monthly salary, half the amount the workers demanded.
At present, there are about 130 garment factories in Burma employing more than 45,000 workers and this industry is one of the significant revenue contributors of up to $300 million a year to the government of the generals. However, in recent years, Burma has faced increased competition in textile industries from other regional countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, which offer low costs and cheap labor.
Meanwhile, the workers in Burma are experiencing the worst exploitation under the Junta government. For instance the textile workers have to work 16 hours from 7 am to 11 pm daily. The monthly income of most factory workers in Burma ranges from 20,000 kyat [$20] to 40,000 kyat [$40], forcing many to work overtime. Many factory owners employ temporary workers who have no legal recourse if they are fired without compensation and more than 80 percent of factory workers in Rangoon work on a day-to-day basis. Most are young women between 15 and 27 years of age who come from the countryside in search of a better living.
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Although strikes or other forms of protests are prohibited in Burma, it seems that at present the industrial disputes are escalating. “The strike is a frequent occurrence,” said a Rangoon teacher interviewed by INM. “Workers make complaints, but their problems are rarely solved.” According to INM, in most cases of industrial dispute, a representative of the Ministry of Labor mediates between the management and the workers to resolve issues. The mediator is merely acting to ensure that certain minimum conditions are met, such as wages, hours and overtime.
In 2007, small demonstrations over hikes in fuel and cooking gas prices grew rapidly into countrywide marches by Buddhist monks and sparked a government crackdown that killed at least 31 people. At that time, all over the world workers and youth supported the heroic struggle by Burma’s youth, monks and workers against the military dictatorship. And the refugees in foreign countries who survived the military crackdown against the 1988 revolution organised protests all around the world. Just as in 2007, the protests in 1988 also spread like wildfire all across the country. At that time, trade unions, work-place committees and many parties were formed and hundreds of independent newspapers mushroomed.
Burma is one of the poorest countries in the world with only US$ 27,542 million GDP and US$2,762 per capital income for 2009. This is the result of the continuous repressive rule of the military junta regime that has been only benefiting the ruling bureaucracy and the business class since 1962.
Analysts say the government appears to be very sensitive to the risk of unrest, with elections scheduled this year under the so-called final stages of a seven-step "roadmap to democracy" drawn up by the Junta. Nevertheless, the workers, students, minorities and the other people oppressed under the Junta government could again come to the streets to demand their rights under worsening economic and social conditions as shown by the previous struggles.
In that situation, the workers with others oppressed in society can only rely on their own strength and organisation and the solidarity of workers and poor in the rest of the world.
We outline a democratic socialist programme for the struggle in Burma:
- Stop the military repression - overthrow the junta!
- Stop all forms of human rights violations!
- Release all political prisoners!
- For a general strike to bring down the military regime!
- For full democratic rights, including freedom of speech and assembly, the right to organise and to form political parties!
- For independent trade unions that fight for workers’ rights!
- For a mass party representing the interests of the working class and of the subsistence agricultural workers!
- For holding free and fair elections to a constituent assembly!
- For a democratic workers’ government with socialist policies, based on the interest of workers, small farmers, agricultural labourers and the urban poor!
- Nationalise the natural gas and oil industries, along with the other major big corporations and banks, under democratic control!
- Full rights for all minorities!
- For a democratic and socialist federation of South East Asia!