Garment workers in Myanmar protesting over pay and factory conditions threatened to continue strikes Tuesday unless their demands are met and authorities release two of their representatives detained earlier this month.
The promise to continue the nearly month-long strikes against Costec International, E-Land Myanmar and Ford Glory Garment in Yangon’s Shwepyithar Industrial Zone, came despite government warnings on Monday that “action” would be taken against protesters.
A worker named Hla Hla Htay told RFA’s Myanmar Service Tuesday that the strikes would continue unless factories granted a wage increase and authorities freed protest leaders Naing Htay Lwin and Myo Min Min, who are facing public disturbance charges.
“We are demanding the release of our two leaders who were arrested and an increase of 30,000 kyats (U.S. $29) to our basic [monthly] salary,” Hla Hla Htay said.
“We have planned to [continue to] protest until we these two demands are met.”
Myo Min Min is the chairperson of the Garment Factory Workers Organisation in Shwepyithar and a worker at the E-Land Myanmar garment factory, while Naing Htay Lwin works for the nearby Ford Glory factory.
The two had been missing for several days when their fellow strikers learned during negotiations with government officials on Sunday that they had been arrested and sent to Insein Prison.
According to the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Naing Htay Lwin has been appointed a hearing at the Shwepyithar Township Court on March 3, while Myo Min Min’s case will be heard on March 6.
Both face up to two years in prison if convicted on charges under Article 505(B) of the Penal Code for “intent to cause … fear or alarm to the public” or to “induce others to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility.”
Around 2,000 workers from the three garment factories, which are reportedly owned by Chinese and South Korean firms, have been on strike since Feb. 2 to demand a raise in monthly wages to 80,000 kyats (U.S. $78).
Workers have called for a monthly increase of 30,000 kyats, saying they are forced to work their regular eight-hour days plus three hours overtime from Monday to Friday and an additional four hours overtime on Sundays to make ends meet.
The three employers have individually proposed counteroffers of around 12,000 kyats (U.S. $11.60) increase per month, but workers claim the factories also want to cut attendance bonuses from 8,000 kyats (U.S. $7.80) to 5,000 kyats (U.S. $4.90).
Workers said Sunday’s meeting with Labour Administration officials and employers at the Shwepyithar administration office, during which they also demanded the release of Naing Htay Lwin and Myo Min Min, ended without any result.
The Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA), which represents the garment companies, has said that workers’ wage demands are unacceptable and have caused many factories to close.
Threat of ‘action’
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security announced Monday that authorities will “take action” against workers who strike at the Shwepyithar Industrial Zone, following clashes between around 100 protesters and police at the site last week.
No further details were provided on what measures might be taken.
Several striking workers and police officers were injured in a scuffle on Feb. 20 when authorities came to disperse the protesters from in front of the E-Land factory, according to local media.
Concerned embassies have made representations to the government on behalf of foreign businesses affected by the strike at the industrial zone, according to the Irrawaddy online journal.
Deputy Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Security Htin Aung told the Irrawaddy he was unable to say which embassies filed complaints, but said they had “called for actions in line with our existing laws, as the investments of their citizens are being affected.”
The journal quoted Zaw Aye Maung, the Yangon region government’s Labor Affairs Minister, as saying that employers had filed complaints to the court after the incident on Friday.
“That’s why there have been some procedural arrests by police. We have no reason to intervene as [employers] filed complaints over their losses,” he said.
As many as 200,000 people work in garment factories in Myanmar, according to the MGMA, while the Labor Rights Clinic reports the average garment employee is female, aged 24, and works six days a week and 13 hours per day for around U.S. $80 per month.
The garment sector makes up 44 percent of Yangon’s total industrial output, according to Myanmar’s Department of Labor Records, which recorded 447 garment worker strikes nationwide between 2012 and 2014.
The government has yet to fix a minimum salary for employees, and talks between disputing workers and factories are ongoing.
Reported by Thiha Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.