Hundreds of workers took to the streets in Myanmar on Tuesday to call for a living wage, while in Laos marchers asked for social welfare benefits and better protection for citizens working abroad, sources said.
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, workers gathered but were forbidden to march, sources in the country said.
Around 700 workers marched in central Myanmar’s Mandalay city on May 1 to demand higher pay and workers’ rights, asking that a new minimum wage of 4,800 kyat (U.S. $3.6) per day proposed in March and approved by the country’s National Assembly be formally announced.
Protesters also called for stronger legal penalties to be imposed against business owners found guilty of exploiting or abusing workers.
In a May Day speech, Myanmar President Win Myint said that the new wage called for by the country’s National Committee for the Minimum Wage—a Ministry of Labor group made up of labor representatives, workers, and employers—would be confirmed within days.
Speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service, though, workers and labor leaders urged immediate action.
“According to the president’s speech, the salaries of government workers have already been raised, and commodities will cost more,” Min Thet Htway, a central executive committee member of the Central Workers’ Union, said.
“But we workers will be in trouble, starving and in debt,” he said. “This is why we have spoken again and again about settling the minimum wage rate.”
Still not enough
And even the new proposed wage may not be enough on which to live, Zarchi Win, a labor leader from the No. 1 Garment Factory, said.
“Workers have asked that the minimum wage be set at 5,600 kyats [U.S. $4.2] per day, but the Minimum Wage Committee has now set it at 4,800 kyat,” she said.
“When the Committee made its announcement, factory owners stopped paying us the extra wages for skilled labor that we had been paid before, which means that all workers will be paid at the same rate.”
“But everything is getting more expensive, day by day,” she said.
“Although we have a civilian government now, nothing is changing for the workers, and we have even lost our rights,” Ma Hla Hla, a worker at a seafood factory, said, adding, “Rents are being raised, and we can’t support our parents anymore.”
Laws protecting workers from abuse by employers must now also be strengthened, added Tharr Gyi, an activist with the 88 Generation Open Society Group, calling existing protections “very weak.”
“There is no provision for jailing business owners if they are found guilty of crimes,” he said. “And the fines imposed on them are just like pocket money for their kids, so they are not afraid to break the laws.”
Few have benefits
Also on Tuesday, workers in Laos marched in a rally organized by the state-controlled Lao Federation of Trade Unions to thank the government for raising the minimum wage, now set at 1.1 million kip (U.S. $120) per month in a move announced today.
Speaking to RFA, though, a factory worker in the capital Vientiane called the raise “good, but not enough.”
“We pay not only for our food but also for water, electricity, and rent, which are getting higher all the time. We need at least $240 a month,” he said.
Meanwhile, at least 60 percent of Lao workers are now uncovered by pension benefits or health care provided by their jobs, a member of the government-run trade union told RFA.
“Many companies only pay a salary, and don’t provide insurance coverage or health care,” a worker in Xayaburi province said. “We’d like to have those benefits, too, for when we have to go to the hospital.”
“I receive only a salary,” a truck driver for a private company in Laos’s Khammouane province agreed. “I get no benefits at all.”
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, workers celebrated Labor Day in the capital Phnom Penh under tight restrictions imposed by government authorities who allowed them to assemble but said they couldn’t march.
Workers were also banned from raising banners or setting up loudspeakers when the event began at 7:00 a.m., Cambodian Labor Confederation (CLC) president Ath Thun told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that his group has requested that a minimum wage, already set for factory workers, be extended to workers in the country’s construction, tourism, and transport industries.
A heavy security presence at the site had meanwhile frightened event participants, Soeung Senkarona, a spokesperson for the ADHOC rights group, told RFA.
“Trade union representatives and workers wanted to march to present their petitions and express their feelings, but they couldn’t act on their wishes.”
This had intimidated workers and trade union leaders and violated their rights to freedom of expression, he said.
Reported by Khay Mani Win and Thinn Thiri and translated by Khet Mar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Also reported by RFA’s Lao and Khmer Services with translations by Max Avary and Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Richard Finney.