Working conditions are worse, wages are lower and space for workplace organising is constricted; yet, it is not a straightforward restoration as workers continue to organise.
The February 2021 military coup in Myanmar put an end to a ten-year period of quasi-civilian electoral rule during which workplace struggles and trade unions proliferated. Not surprisingly, the coup has had a devastating impact on working conditions and workers’ organisations in the country.
Yet, more than a year on, the present situation in Myanmar is not a straightforward restoration of what preceded the country’s so-called democratic transition that began in 2011. A discussion of the differences between the current situation and the pre-2011 period can shed light on not just the challenges but also opportunities for worker organising in post-coup Myanmar.
In what follows, I will first sketch the history of workers’ struggles during the decade before the coup, the role of workers in opposing the coup, and the ensuing repression of politicised workers. This background provides necessary context for the subsequent consideration of workers’ collective action in present-day Myanmar.
A Brief History of Workers’ Struggles in Myanmar
For nearly 50 years prior to the 2011 shift to quasi-civilian rule, trade unions in Myanmar were de facto illegal. Following the 1988 popular uprising, the country’s reconstituted military junta abolished the socialist-era workers’ councils that had previously served as alternative channels for workers to pursue collective redress for workplace grievances.1
Over the ensuing two decades, military authorities became ever more draconian in restricting, often violently, workers’ efforts to organise and bargain collectively.2 Nonetheless, small-scale informal strikes and workplace negotiations occurred intermittently during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Formal Myanmar labour organisations, like the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association and the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB), were also active during these years. However, they were based in neighbouring Thailand, with negligible involvement in workplace struggles inside Myanmar. For the most part, these organisations focused on supporting Myanmar migrants working in Thailand (as was the case with Yaung Chi Oo) or on international advocacy (as was the case with FTUB).
Such were the conditions preceding Myanmar’s shift to electoral rule in 2011. Its political-legal framework was enshrined in the 2008 military-drafted constitution. Whatever the reasons for this shift, the ensuing years saw the promulgation of several significant labour laws, which the International Labour Organisation (ILO) assisted in drafting.
These include the 2011 Labour Organisation Law (which legalised trade union formation), the 2012 Settlement of Labour Disputes Law (which formalised collective bargaining) and the 2013 Minimum Wages Act. These laws were centrepieces of a then-emerging liberal labour regime, the ideology of which framed workers’ rights and capitalist development as complementary.
Yet, the conflicts that soon erupted around these laws revealed the new arrangement to be deeply contradictory. For example, a Yangon-based ILO adviser affirmed in 2015 that Myanmar’s new industrial relations framework had been designed to “ward off strikes” by channelling workers’ collective actions into non-disruptive dispute resolution mechanisms.
To this, Myanmar labour activist Ye Yint Khant Maung (2019) retorted, “Existing trade union legislation is ostensibly intended to ensure workers’ right to organise. But in fact, these laws aim to achieve industrial tranquillity and workers’ acquiescence in order to promote foreign direct investment and stable capital accumulation.”
Workers in Myanmar nevertheless took the opportunity provided by the new legislation to collectively organise and increase strikes. Moe Sandar Myint, president of the Federation of General Workers of Myanmar (FGWM), articulated workers’ reasoning like this:
Workers were seeing the benefits of the strike. The strike gets them their rights. The strikes get them their wage increase. When one strike happens, other workers see that the strike works. They come to know the taste of the strike, and it is a good taste.
Given the failure of the new industrial relations mechanisms to wholly contain labour strikes, employers, police and government officials repeatedly intervened to quell disruptive workplace actions.
In 2015, for example, some 5,000 workers employed at five garment factories in Yangon’s Shwepyithar Township staged a joint five-week-long strike.3. At first, the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Welfare called on the workers to accept their existing wages and cease the strike, as it risked scaring away foreign investors.
When the workers persisted in their action, township authorities dispatched civilian vigilantes and baton-wielding police to violently disperse the workers’ strike camp. Dozens of the mostly women protesters were injured in the crackdown, while police detained two journalists and 14 striking workers.
Such repression of disruptive workplace actions continued under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, which held office from February 2016 until the military ousted it five years later in the 2021 coup. The rationale for this repression lay in the NLD’s efforts to create a welcoming environment for foreign direct investment.
Despite such repression, Myanmar had, by the time of the coup, close to 3,000 registered workplace-level unions—or “basic labour organisations,” as they were officially called. The bulk of these unions were based in the industrial zones around Yangon.
At the national level, the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM, formerly FTUB), was the country’s sole registered trade union confederation. It focused heavily on political lobbying and engagement with employers’ associations, and had more amicable relations with government officials.
By contrast, smaller union federations, like FGWM and the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions, were more confrontational, more grounded in workplace-level union democracy, more inclined to strike outside the restrictive industrial dispute resolution mechanisms and more likely to face police repression.
In addition, labour activist groups, like Yaung Chi Oo, supported independent worker organising by hosting organising meetings, conducting labour law and workplace organising trainings, providing legal aid to disputant workers, and accompanying workers to government labour offices and collective bargaining sessions.
Worker Mobilisation against the Coup
Concerned that a return to military rule would lead to deteriorating working conditions and restrictions on worker organising, thousands of mostly young, female factory workers took strike action to protest the coup in downtown Yangon on 6 February 2021. Participating workers were mostly from FGWM. Their action catalysed a general strike and motivated people across the country to take to the streets in protest.
Meanwhile, civil servants, led by doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, launched a civil disobedience movement that subsequently attracted hundreds of thousands of other public and private sector workers.
At Yangon’s ports, striking truck drivers brought international trade to a standstill and the banking system was paralysed by walk-outs. Workers making military equipment at Ministry of Defence factories and miners employed at Chinese-run copper mines with revenue-sharing agreements with the military also joined the general strike.
Myanmar labour activist Ko Maung argued that the uprising was not due to elite vanguardism—that is, a mobilisation of the masses by high-profile politicians and activists. It was instead factory workers themselves who organised the 6 February action that catalysed subsequent protests across the country.
This does not mean that the action was wholly spontaneous, in the sense of occurring without preparation or premeditation. The 6 February anti-coup protests were made possible by factory workers and union organisers deliberating and deciding upon a course of action in the days prior.
Crucially, worker organising over the preceding decade laid the groundwork for the anti-coup protest movement. “Had workers not previously organised unions inside their factories,” argues Ko Maung, “the protests that catalysed the Spring Revolution would not have happened.”
The catalytic role of factory workers in mobilising the post-coup protest movement made them the target of the ensuing military and police crackdown. On 26 February 2021, the junta declared 16 of Myanmar’s most prominent trade unions and labour organisations illegal and threatened to arrest (under sections 505(a) and 505(b) of the Myanmar penal code) labour activists who organised anti-coup activities. Subsequently, on 14 March, soldiers and police killed at least 65 protesters in the Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone on Yangon’s outskirts.
The junta then declared martial law over Hlaing Tharyar and other working-class townships around Yangon. On 15 April, around 40 soldiers raided the office of the Solidarity Trade Union of Myanmar and arrested its director, Daw Myo Myo Aye, for organising anti-coup activities. Other union leaders and labour activists went underground or fled abroad to avoid arrest.
In the face of this repression, the momentum of the anti-coup movement shifted, around April 2021, from urban strikes and mass street protests to armed attacks on military targets by newly formed People’s Defence Forces (PDFs), based mostly in rural areas.
Following the coup, employers took advantage of martial law and economic disruption to cut workers’ wages, degrade working conditions and undermine workplace unions. Many factories nullified existing employment contracts and shifted their workers to casual labour arrangements at wages below the legal minimum.
On 16 March, police and soldiers called by the owner of the Xing Jia factory in Hlaing Tharyar shot and killed six workers who had disputed their wages with their employer, whom they accused of theft.
Other businesses simply shut down. By the end of the year, some 1.6 million jobs had been lost due to fallout from the coup, according to the ILO. Under these conditions, the number of people seeking to leave the country to work abroad has surged. The most popular destinations for labour migration are Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
Organising in Post-Coup Myanmar
Since the coup, the State Administration Council (SAC; the junta that seized power) has endeavoured to persuade audiences at home and abroad that the reassertion of military rule is an accomplished fact, despite ongoing anti-coup protests across the country and a resurgence of armed struggle.
Workplace struggles are no longer the focal point of the broader anti-junta resistance. Many workers, however, are sympathetic to and supportive of the PDFs and other armed anti-junta forces active across the country. Clearly, the SAC has been unable to “normalise” the situation in Myanmar.
Yet, the junta’s efforts to legitimate the reassertion of military rule against the backdrop of the decade-long “transition” means that the present situation is not simply a restoration of the pre-2011 arrangement.
Attempting to normalise the post-coup arrangement, while keeping workers from engaging in overtly political acts, the SAC maintains that the 2008 constitution and existing labour laws remain in force. This means that, unlike the pre-2011 period of military rule, unions, unionisation and collective bargaining remain legal.
Of course, the SAC declared certain unions and labour organisations illegal in late February 2021. However, none of those organisations were registered in the first place. For example, FGWM was declared illegal, but its federation status had never in fact been formalised. Registered unions, by contrast, were notably left out of the junta’s declaration.
Thus, FGWM factory-level member unions were not declared illegal at the time. Nor was CTUM, which remains a legal trade union confederation in Myanmar, despite having called for comprehensive economic sanctions to remove the junta.
Legal registration remains a moot point so long as the military, police and employers prevent workers from using formal industrial relations mechanisms to improve their wages and working conditions. Nevertheless, many of these organisations continue to operate, despite their more high-profile activists having gone into hiding or fled abroad. Inside factories, union organisers remain active, while rank-and-file members stay connected via social media and participate in online trainings and workshops.
In post-coup Myanmar, working conditions are worse, wages are lower and space for workplace organising is constricted. Yet, workers have continued to collectively organise for improved wages and working conditions despite the threat of military and police violence under the state of emergency. Such collective struggles are important assertions of workplace democracy amid the suspension of electoral rule.
On 8 December 2021, around 800 workers at a garment factory in Shwepyithar Township began a strike that lasted 11 days. The action ended with the employer capitulating. The workers had demanded that the employer stop cutting the bonuses of employees who were unable to work every day, serve better quality rice in the factory canteen and sack a human resources manager accused of constant harassment.
The workers achieved their demands, including the removal of the human resources manager. They also held a workplace election to choose a new executive committee for their factory-level union. Significantly, workers in this case asserted workplace democracy under enduring martial law.
On 16 March 2022, some 7,000 – 8,000 Foodpanda delivery riders across Myanmar went on strike. The workers issued seven demands—the most important being for a minimum delivery fee of 670 kyat (about USD 0.36) per order and for delivery distance to be measured according to the route travelled, rather than as a straight line. Yet, when 80 – 100 riders met at a park in Yangon to discuss next steps, soldiers arrived, took photos, questioned the workers and escorted lead organisers to a local administrative office.
Organisers were instructed to restrict their actions to the formal dispute resolution process. Under these conditions, the riders negotiated with their employer until 20 April. In the end, the employer agreed to a 580-kyat minimum delivery wage, while verbally committing to implement the workers’ remaining demands. Organisers were dissatisfied with the amount offered and remained sceptical the employer would follow through on the negotiated settlement. Yet, given ongoing military rule, organisers were wary of arrest or harassment should they pursue more confrontational, extra-institutional negotiating tactics.
Myanmar’s formal industrial relations mechanisms have been problematic from the start. And since the coup, workers who pursue disruptive actions outside formal mechanisms risk arrest—or worse. Nonetheless, the very existence of these mechanisms, and of a legal space for organising, distinguishes the post-coup moment from the pre-2011 period of military rule.
Immediately after the coup, people outside Myanmar provided financial resources to worker organisations and other anti-junta forces in the country. Individuals abroad helped mobilise funds to finance safe houses for labour activists in hiding. Such concrete financial assistance is a worthy form of international solidarity for labour groups and worker organisers who remain active in Myanmar.
What is also needed now is global pressure on international companies like Foodpanda that are facing strikes and collective demands by workers in Myanmar. As workers in Myanmar continue to organise, they deserve our immense solidarity and support.
- Campbell, S. (2019) “Labour Formalisation as Selective Hegemony in Reform-era Myanmar,” The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 20(1) p.64.
- Kyaw Soe Lwin (2014) “Legal Perspectives on Industrial Disputes in Myanmar,” in Law, Society and Transition in Myanmar, edited by Melissa Crouch and Tim Lindsey (Oxford: Hart Publishing), p.296.
- Arnold, D. and S. Campbell (2017) “Labour Regime Transformation in Myanmar: Constitutive Processes of Contestation”, Development and Change 48(4) pp. 816 – 820