Myanmar Factory Workers Forced to Choose Between Chinese Vaccines And Pink Slips

Labor activists say workers are concerned about getting ill but are fired if they refuse the shot.
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Myanmar Factory Workers Forced to Choose Between Chinese Vaccines And Pink Slips A woman is vaccinated against COVID-19 in Yangon, February 2021.

Factory workers in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon are being forced to decide between receiving bonuses for getting Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines or pink slips, despite concerns they have about potential side effects from the drug, labor activists said Monday.

Thet Thet Aung, a labor official with the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society rights group, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that authorities have been offering monetary rewards to factory workers to get the Sinopharm vaccine, while others are threatening to fire those who refuse to.

She said workers at a small number of factories had not been pressured to get vaccinated, but most had been “forced” to do so.

“Most workers are too scared to be vaccinated … because they haven’t been given any details about the vaccine,” she said.

“But the factory told them they would be fired if they didn’t get vaccinated. This is happening in many factories.”

Thet Thet Aung said workers at one factory had been asked, without any pressure, to get vaccinated, but that it has now “become mandatory.”

“If you refuse, you would be fired. That’s the situation,” she said.

“The workers are now questioning who will take the responsibility if something happens [to them] after taking the vaccine. And the factory officials said it was not their responsibility. There are some factories where workers are not pressured about this. But that’s only a few.”

She said the workers are unwilling to be vaccinated because the factory has refused to give them a leave of absence if they become ill after receiving the shot.

China has shipped millions of doses of its Sinopharm vaccine to Myanmar in July and August as the Southeast Asian nation grapples with a third outbreak of COVID-19 that has killed 6,241 people and infected nearly 98,000 in the past month. Officials say at least 15,183 people have died and 392,300 have been infected since the start of the pandemic, but sources say the numbers are likely much higher.

Efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus in Myanmar were dealt a serious blow when the military seized power in a Feb. 1 coup d’état. The country’s healthcare system is now at the brink of collapse due to a poorly managed response to a third wave of COVID-19 that has killed more than 8,600 people in the past month alone.

The country’s public hospitals are operating at maximum capacity and have been turning away all but the most seriously ill. Other patients are being forced to settle for treatment at home amid shortages of basic medical necessities, including oxygen supplies critical to mitigating hypoxia, when oxygen fails to reach bodily tissues.

Vaccination drive

Workers at the Grand Enterprises Garment (GEG) factory in Yangon’s Dagon Myothit (East) township, which employs more than 30,000 people, said some people “sweated profusely” and “fainted” after being given the vaccine on Aug. 21.

A woman at the GEG factory, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that some of the workers took the vaccination after being promised cash rewards.

“It was last Saturday, and I went for the vaccination. One of the guys at the top of the line was vaccinated and very soon after that, he fainted and fell. It happened right before our eyes,” she said.

“Another man who said he had a heart condition had breathing difficulties after getting the shot. He wasn’t sent to any hospital as the factory had its own clinic. They said the man recovered at the clinic after a while.”

The woman said that while workers were told they would not receive a leave of absence, they were offered 5,000 kyats (U.S. $3) to take the vaccine.

“A lot of people got interested after that and agreed to get vaccinated. The same happened at seven other branches of the factory,” she said, adding that around 1,000 people were vaccinated that day.

A security official at the GEG factory told RFA that the shots were given without checking the medical history of each factory worker.

“We first heard that a pregnant woman had fainted. But it wasn’t true. A guy sweated profusely after the vaccination and fainted,” he said.

“After some inquiries, we found out that the shots were given without checking the medical records of the workers. They just checked their oxygen levels and gave them the shots, which is not right.”

Workers told RFA that GEG officials stopped vaccinating workers that day due to the fainting incidents.

WHO guidance

Reports of the forced vaccinations at factories came days after Dr. Khin Khin Gyi, director of the junta’s Central Infectious Diseases Control Division under the Ministry of Health, told the official MRTV on Aug. 23 that members of the public could “take their vaccinations with confidence,” as the vaccines from China had already been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“There is no harm in being vaccinated and one would only get positive benefits [from doing so],” he said at the time.

But during a news conference the following day, Dr. Zaw Wai Soe, the health minister for Myanmar’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), slammed the junta for a vaccination rollout that he said has not followed WHO guidelines.

“We have to follow the plan that has been recognized by the WHO and agreed upon,” he said.

“It may be difficult for the public and our country as a whole to get protection against the virus, as we are seeing, in many cases, an unsystematic procedure in the administration of the vaccines.”

Dr. Zaw Wei Soe said the NUG government was working to ensure that people are vaccinated “systematically,” adding that the WHO will soon deliver 4 million doses of the U.S.-made Pfizer vaccine and 2.2 million doses of the Chinese-produced Sinovac vaccine. He said the NUG is also working to obtain 15 million doses of vaccines purchased from India prior to the coup.

According to a statement issued by the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association in June, there are 11 factories in Myanmar that have been shuttered since February and 41 factories that are temporarily closed. It said a total of 502 garment factories are currently in operation.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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