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July 26, 2021

Myanmar unions call for economic sanctions

Trade unions in Myanmar are calling for comprehensive economic sanctions against the country to prevent companies using the current situation to employ casual workers in unsafe factories.

By Michelle Russell

The Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM) says economic sanctions are needed, and for the international community to isolate the military regime. The CTUM is part of the 16-member Labour Alliance, representing the entire labour movement in the country.

“There are no trade union rights without political freedom,” says Khaing Zar, president of IndustriAll Global Union affiliate the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM), and an executive committee member of the CTUM.

“Our unions cannot operate. Many of our leaders have been arrested or are in hiding after arrest warrants were issued. Collective bargaining agreements have been cancelled, and employers are passing the names, pictures and personal information of trade union members to the military. Employers use the situation to get rid of permanent workers and employ casual workers at less than the minimum wage, in unsafe factories with no Covid protections.

“Global brands investing in Myanmar have not acted enough to protect workers. Workers’ lives will not improve until we remove this regime.”

Myanmar sanctions

The CTUM initially issued the boycott call in a May Day message to the international trade union movement, calling for support to “starve and drive out the regime”.

Global unions challenged the legitimacy of the military regime at the International Labour Conference, and in June the ILO adopted a resolution calling for a return to democracy. IndustriAll affiliates participated in a number of solidarity actions and the executive committee adopted a solidarity resolution in April.

Myanmar adopted a new constitution in 2009 and had a civilian government from 2012 until the military coup on 1 February 2021, according to IndustriAll. Under civilian rule, despite serious challenges, unions made significant progress. The CTUM negotiated through tripartite social dialogue structures, and won significant improvements in the minimum wage and working hours.

In November 2019, the IWFM and IndustriAll negotiated freedom of association guidelines that were endorsed by ACT member brands, covering 200 factories and 130,000 workers. This provision has been extremely useful for the IWFM’s organising and making employers respect the right to peacefully demonstrate, the unions say.

The trade union movement in Myanmar believes that a combination of internal resistance and external solidarity and pressure is necessary to remove the regime. It says the international community must isolate the regime, end diplomatic and business relationships, and recognise the National Unity Government as the legitimate representative of the people of Myanmar.

IndustriAll general secretary Valter Sanches explains: “To win this fight, the demands of the Myanmar trade unions need to be taken seriously and implemented internationally.

“The military dictatorship must be removed from UN bodies and the international community, as it was at the latest ILC, and the National Unity Government must be recognized. This must be implemented immediately, at the upcoming UN General Assembly, by all international governments that respect democracy and basic human and trade union rights.

“We will continue to promote solidarity action, along with our affiliates and the global unions, until the people of Myanmar restore democracy and respect for human rights in the country.”

Significant deterioration

A recent report by the ILO has found that with an economy already weakened by the Covid-19 pandemic, a deep employment crisis has followed the military takeover in Myanmar.

Estimates suggest a significant deterioration in labour market conditions, with employment having contracted by an estimated 6% in the second quarter of 2021 compared to the fourth quarter of 2020, reflecting 1.2m job losses.

In the first half of 2021, an estimated 14% of working hours were lost, which is equivalent to the working time of at least 2.2m full-time workers.

All sectors of the economy have been impacted, with construction, garments and tourism and hospitality among the hardest hit. In the first half of 2021, employment in these sectors decreased by an estimated 35%, 31% and 25% respectively, with even higher losses in relative working hours.

Last month, a group of 77 asset managers urged companies with business links to Myanmar to take action against ongoing human rights violations.

This article was first published by the IndustriAll global union.

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