Clothing industry workers sacked, arrested after requesting wage increase

After threatening workers protesting the dismissal of garment factory labour organisers in Yangon for demanding better pay, the Myanmar junta arrested two of the organisers on Wednesday.

Seven labour were fired on June 10 after employees at the Hosheng Myanmar clothing factory in Yangon’s Shwepyithar Township, which is owned by a Chinese national and produces clothes for the multinational Spanish retailer ZARA, requested a raise.

More than 600 workers held a protest in support of the sacked leaders on Monday, two days after their dismissal.

Thu Thu San, 29, had been working at the factory for nearly two years when she was terminated. She was arrested just four days after her dismissal along with another woman who had lost her job at the factory.

Thu Thu San’s colleagues said it was unclear where she was being held.

“They told both of them to get out of the car when it arrived at the police station. Then, they told the other woman to ‘go sit somewhere,’ ordered Thu Thu San to get back in the car, and drove off,” said a man who worked at the factory, requesting anonymity.

Myanmar Labour News reported on Tuesday that police officers, soldiers, and others with unknown affiliations came and shouted threats at the workers during their protest the day before. One of them shouted that this township was under martial law.

“This is an area under martial law,” the man says in an audio recording linked in a Myanmar Labour News article. “The rules are not the same here. Your little union doesn’t mean anything under martial law.”

The coup regime declared martial law in Shwepyithar and other Yangon townships in March 2021 after massive popular demonstrations against their seizure of power.

Myanmar Labour News also reports that armed junta personnel were at the factory on Monday before the protest began.

“They were already at the factory before the workers arrived. More came after the workers gathered. They were very rude and hostile,” the labour leaders’ former colleague said.

Junta personnel searched Thu Thu San’s room for her mobile phone on Wednesday evening, according to another worker.

“They were looking for her living quarters. They kept asking aggressively, so we had to go at night and turn over the phone. They’ve started monitoring the dormitory as well, and some girls don’t want to live there anymore because of that. They also found a book on labour law in her room and took it,” the worker added.

Several workers, including Thu Thu San, have petitioned the regime’s department of labour for authorisation to form a union. The department delayed approving the petition on the grounds that one of the petitioners was a few months under 18 years old.

The labour leaders, who had requested a daily wage of 5600 kyat (US$2.50) and 1400 kyat per hour of overtime, were fired despite the factory’s management having agreed to raise wages on June 1. The organisers were fired after requesting a contract stipulating the new terms, according to their coworkers.

The international labour federation IndustriALL Global Union issued a statement condemning the employers’ decision to fire the organisers. Atle Høie, the federation’s general secretary, argued that the military’s intimidation and arrest of protesting workers made it clear that there is no true right to unionise in Myanmar.

“The dismissed workers must immediately be reinstated and not be subjected to threats or aggression by employers, police or soldiers. Thu Thu San must be returned home safely and without delay,” the secretary general’s statement said.

The employers’ official letter dismissing the workers cites “incitement to disrupt peaceful conditions” in the factory, threats, and deliberate attempts to decrease production as the reasons for termination.

In a similar case, Thidar Win, another labour organiser at the Sun Apparel garment factory in Hlaingtharyar Township, Yangon, was arrested by the military on Wednesday, the same day as Thu Thu San, according to reports by Myanmar Labour News. Myanmar Now is still investigating the incident, as access to verifiable information is currently limited.

In October of 2022, thousands of employees of the Myanmar Bao Zheng company—which runs a factory in Shwepyithar Township, Yangon, that makes shoes for Adidas—requested a raise from 4800 kyats to 8000 kyat and observance of basic labour rights in the factory. Three days later, 26 of the workers were fired.

Conditions for industrial workers in Myanmar have deteriorated since the February 2021 military coup. Despite inflation, the minimum wage for an eight-hour workday in Myanmar has not changed since 2018, when the pre-coup National League of Democracy government raised it from 3600 to 4800 kyat.

In March 2023, just ahead of the Thingyan holidays, the Chinese-owned Fitex garment factory in Hlaing Tharyar Township laid off over 400 workers, more than half its workforce, without severance or other compensation.

According to a report issued by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in January 2022, more than 1.6 million Myanmar workers had lost their jobs since the coup just under a year before.

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