Workers across Southeast Asia are feeling the economic pain from the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, as business dries up and factories shut their doors, putting people out of work in the face of minimal welfare safety nets in their developing economies.
More than 20,000 workers have lost their jobs in Myanmar after scores of factories closed down amid shortages of raw materials. Now some workers are asking factory owners to temporary shutter operations as a preventive measure.
On Friday, nearly 1,500 garment workers from four factories in the Dagon Seikkan Township Industrial Zone in Yangon region staged a demonstration, demanding that owners temporarily close down the plants during the pandemic and give them paid leave, labor union leaders said.
Zar Zar Tun, a labor union leader at the Blue Diamond handbag factory, where the demonstration began in the morning, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that workers fear they could contract the virus if they continue working there while lockdown restrictions are in place in other areas to prevent the pathogen’s spread.
“We are now demanding to negotiate with the boss,” she said. “We are appealing to him to shut down the factory for the entire month of April and pay wages and salaries for this month. We are protesting to demand our rights that are guaranteed by law. We are being denied these rights.”
“We just started the protests this morning and workers in at least four factories are participating,” Zar Zar Tun added. “We are worried for our health because of the viral outbreak, and because most of us live paycheck-to-paycheck, we need our salaries.”
RFA could not reach Blue Diamond’s manager for comment.
Zar Zar Tun said she and other labor union leaders would negotiate with the owners of the plants, but that workers would continue demonstrating in the meantime.
Standing with them
Thet Htar Swe, a leader from the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma, told RFA that her organization will assist the roughly 1,500 workers from the four factories in getting their demands met.
“Their demands are to temporarily shut down all four factories during April while paying wages and salaries to workers for the whole month and givng them other rights guaranteed by law,” she said. “Our federation stands with the protesting workers and will help them succeed in securing their rights.”
Workers from the Bluebird Enterprise backpack factory, the Rainhouse Myanmar raincoat factory, and the Mayshar Myanmar glove factory are also taking part in the rallies.
The owners of the glove factory have already told workers that they do not want to temporarily close down operations and will only pay workers for official holidays if they need to shutter the plant, Thet Htar Swe said.
On March 25, the President’s Office issued a directive ordering half of Union-level, state, and regional government workforces to stay home to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, but told employees to be prepared to report for duty if needed.
The order does not cover nongovernmental workers or medical personnel in government hospitals.
The Union government and state and regional governments have created COVID-19 prevention working groups.
As of Friday, Myanmar’s health ministry reported 20 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, and one death.
‘Impossible to control’
Despite government-ordered 14-day quarantines for Myanmar and foreign nationals who return to the country and those suspected of COVID-19 infections, health volunteers in upper Myanmar — the central and northern parts of the country — have reported several cases of people evading the isolation requirement and other regional restrictions.
Those who violate mandatory quarantines are subject to jail terms.
One man in a quarantine facility in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay received a six-month prison sentence for leaving the shelter to buy some drinks and then acting hostilely towards authorities when confronted.
“He should not have left the shelter, said Aung Soe Oo, a volunteer in the city working to limit the spread of the virus. “That man should be held to account for what he did, so that others will follow orders and rules.”
A resident of Mogok township in Mandalay’s Pyin Oo Lwin district agreed.
“I like the six-month sentence for people who don’t follow the order,” he said. “People ignore the volunteers’ advice in Mogok.”
“If authorities don’t protect the volunteers, there will no volunteers if the situation becomes worse,” he added.
On Friday, the Yangon government urged people to stay home during the mid-month Thingyan Buddhist New Year celebrations to prevent the spread of the virus.
Other regions have followed suit, telling people to shelter in place.
“We are unhappy about issuing a regional order, but it would get worse if we didn't do it,” said lawmaker Zaw Htet from Pale township in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region.
“It is impossible to control [COVID-19] in all the regions and states to fight this pandemic with self-monitoring,” he added. “It will be easier to control through regional orders.”
The central government has also banned public gatherings until the end of April and threatened jail time for those who fail to report suspected COVID-19 cases.
Government officials meanwhile have threatened to take legal action against those who overcharge Myanmar consumers for hand sanitizers, face masks, and other essential goods during the health crisis.
The Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) says it will scrutinize prices of medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, and foodstuffs to make sure vendors are not engaging in price gouging during the prevention, containment, and treatment of COVID-19, state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported.
Those found guilty of price gouging can be charged under Section 5 of the Essential Supplies and Services Law, which carries a six-month to three-year prison term and up to 500,000 kyats (U.S. $353) in fines, the report said.
“We will scrutinize them on whether they are complying with the law or not,” DCA director Swe Tint Kyuu was quoted as saying.
Khine Thazin Aung, who runs an online shop, said some wholesale vendors have increased the price of protective face masks from 50 kyats (4 U.S. cents) each to 1,000 kyats (70 cents).
“I now purchase face masks at a wholesale price of over 400 kyats and sell them at 500 kyats each,” he told RFA.
“The sellers name whatever price they want,” he added. “There is no effective control on the prices, [and] I don't think the government is able to effectively control them.”
Prices for medical face masks, hand soap, and sanitizers skyrocketed after Myanmar announced the first two confirmed COVID-19 cases on March 23, leading to some supply shortages.
“The government will intervene at some point,” said DCA director Swe Tint Kyu. “We also have to consider the consequences of possible commodity shortages if we take measures on price controls.”
So far, the DCA has received two complaints about price gouging but determined that they were not strong enough to press charges.
Maung Maung, secretary of Myanmar Consumer's Union, said the laws against price gouging have not been effective.
“We have seen very effective actions like giving prison sentences or monetary fines for price gougers in other countries,” he said. “They have very effective digital systems to track commodities manufacturing, distribution, and storage. We don’t have such systems.”
“That’s why we will not be able to take strong action [against price gougers],” he added. “We know there are laws against price gouging, but they are not effective under the given circumstances."
Effect on transportation
Public transportation services in Yangon have suffered during the coronavirus outbreak with many drivers losing their jobs under a government order for half of the public sector workforce to stay at home.
“Because we don’t have regular income from the business, we can’t pay our staff,” said Tayoat Lay, managing director of Power Eleven Bus Company Ltd.
“We also have daily expenses, and we didn’t have enough money to pay for those,” he added. “This is why most individual bus lines have stopped operating and company bus lines are still trying to stay in business.”
Thaung Nyut from the Ngwe Sin Oo passenger speed boat group that operates along the Chindwin River, the largest tributary of Myanmar's main river, the Irrawaddy, said some vessels stopped running due to a drop in passenger numbers.
“We stopped operating our speedboats because of the virus problem,” he said. “Fewer passengers travel these days. That’s why we have sent a letter to authorities, informing them that we are stopping our business.”
Some national railway trains have also stopped running amid a decrease in passengers.
“We’ve got two trains running now for each three we previously had,” said Nyo Oo, general manager of Myanmar Railways, adding that the operator cut train Nos. 25 and 26 between the capital Naypyidaw and Mandalay, as well as the Mandalay-Monywa and Mandalay-Kawlin trains.
“We have stopped a total of eight trains and reduced routes to Lashio [in northern Shan state] from Mandalay,” he said.
Lao capital closes most businesses
In Laos, entertainment venues and restaurants are all shut down in compliance with a government order, with police patrolling the capital Vientiane and issuing fines to those caught violating the directive.
“When night falls, it’s quiet, and all places are closed,” said a Vientiane resident. “Authorities patrol the streets starting at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. All large and popular venues in this area have been closed since April 1.”
Another Vientiane resident described “loudspeakers telling residents to stay home, wear masks, be more careful, and avoid unnecessary contact.”
But noodle restaurants have remained open with staff and patrons practicing social distancing, he said.
The Lao government is preparing to give tax breaks to lower, defer, or cancel taxes for businesses, government employees, and other workers affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The policy will be applied for three months for those who are affected by the crisis,” an official from the Ministry of Industry and Commerce told RFA on Friday.
“Under this policy, taxes will be reduced or exempted for businesses, state employees, and laborers for the months of April, May, and June this year,” he said.
Eligible businesses must be legally registered with the ministry and have documents showing that they have paid taxes, while state and private company employees must have a monthly income of less than five million kip (U.S. $550) to qualify for a tax exemption.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo, Khaymani Win, Waiyan Moe Myint, and Phyu Phyu Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service, and by the Lao Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung, Khet Mar and Max Avary. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.