Thousands of mostly female factory workers from three industrial zones in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon marked International Workers’ Day on Friday by marching through the city to demand an increase in their minimum wage.
The garment workers from the Hlaingthayar, Shwepyitha and Mingalardon industrial zones called on factory owners to raise their daily pay to 5,000 kyats (U.S. $4.60) from around 1,500 kyats (U.S. $1.40) per day, citing comparatively higher wages for laborers in other countries in Southeast Asia.
The protesters pointed to a recent government survey of 100 townships in Yangon region which found that, on average, a worker living there could expect to pay around 3,000 kyats (U.S. $2.75) in daily expenses, leaving them barely able to make ends meet.
“Workers from Myanmar receive very low minimum wages—much lower than the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) standard,” protester Thant Zin told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We also lack proper laws to protect workers, so the combination of these issues has left us in trouble,” she said.
Government representatives have been acting as mediators between workers and factory owners in wage negotiations, but the talks have yielded little progress and the two sides remain far apart.
Mar Mar Oo, a labor activist with the 88 Generation student group, said workers were forced to labor extremely long hours in order to earn around 100,000 kyats (U.S. $92) a month in an effort to meet their expenses, but often fell ill from exhaustion and faced stiff penalties for missing work.
“It’s the government’s responsibility to set the minimum wage for workers,” she said.
“Workers are getting sick because they have to work many hours each day.”
Factory owners typically deduct 3,000-6,000 kyats (U.S. $2.75-$5.50) from a worker’s basic monthly wages of 30,000-50,000 kyats (U.S. $28-46) for each day they fail to show up for their job.
The protest march progressed through Yangon to the city’s town square, where a ceremony was held to mark the May 1 holiday recognizing the world’s laborers and working classes.
Myanmar’s Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Security Aye Myint read a message by President Thein Sein at the ceremony, warning that an increase in the minimum wage could result in harsh impacts for the country’s workers.
“If the minimum wage is raised, the price of commodities will also increase due to higher production costs,” the message said.
“Workers could lose their jobs as factory owners purchase machines to do their work for cheaper, or decide to close their businesses. These are the negative impacts workers may see if the minimum wage is increased. Also, it could serve as a barrier to foreign investment in the country.”
But Aung Lin, chair of the Federation of Trade Unions Myanmar, dismissed the president’s warning, saying the country’s workers deserve to be paid more.
“The government has set basic pay for its staff at 120,000 kyats (U.S. $110) [per month], so we shouldn’t have a minimum wage for workers at any less than that amount,” he said.
Thet Hnin Aung, the union’s information officer, told RFA that the government needs to be more aware of the problems facing the country’s workforce.
“We invited government officials to the May Day ceremony because we want them to hear the workers’ voices,” he said.
“If they don’t do anything for us, it is their business, but we have to make them aware of our difficulties.”
New Ye Win, a worker from the Hlaingthayar industrial zone, said many of the country’s laborers needed to be educated about their rights.
“But even if they were aware of them, they lack the courage to demand them as they fear losing their jobs if they do,” she said.
Rights lawyer Ko Ni told RFA that while Myanmar has some 20 labor laws in its constitution, most of them were issued in the country’s colonial era under British rule and became ineffective when the country switched to a more socialist system after independence.
“We have very few proper laws for workers nowadays,” he said.
“Company owners don’t do anything for workers, such as protecting their health, providing a safe working environment or capacity building. They simply order them to work for many hours at low wages.”