Striking Against All Odds

More than two years have passed since the coup in Myanmar. There have been crackdowns on trade unions shortly after the coup, and militant union leaders have been arrested or driven underground. Do workers and unions still dare to organize and protest? The strike at the Pou Chen footwear factory in Yangon last October provides important clues about the conditions driving workers to take action, their courage and resilience, and the not unexpected harsh reactions from the authorities.

On 25 October 2022, 400 workers from the Pou Chen factory in Yangon went on strike to demand an increase in the minimum wage from 4,800 Kyats (USD 2.27) to 8000 Kyats (USD 3.78). The current minimum wage, which has not been re-negotiated and thus stagnated for several years, is inadequate for workers’ survival given the rising living costs. Employers have refused to increase wages. Overtime pay, social benefits, and leaves, too, have become more difficult to secure.

Pou Chen is a Taiwanese-owned footwear factory that employs 7,800 workers in Myanmar. It is a supplier of soccer shoes to Adidas which was a major outfitter for the 2021 World Cup. Yet the monthly wage of Pou Chen workers is less than the cost of one single pair of Adidas soccer shoes that workers make.

In addition to the wage demand, the Pou Chen workers also asked that their union be allowed to represent workers and bargain on their behalf in the factory; working conditions, such as the provision of safe drinking water, be improved; parking space for keeping workers’ vehicles; transportation arrangements for the workers who don’t own any vehicles; and disciplinary actions against supervisors who verbally abuse workers.


Conditions and Organizing in the Garment Industry


The garment and footwear factories are labor-intensive and are often associated with exploitative working conditions under insufficient labor law protections. The garment workers are subjected to harassment and abuse by supervisors and factory managers. The workplace is often unsanitary, with inadequate shared bathrooms, and unsafe drinking water. The employers never pay attention to handling these issues despite workers regularly raising these concerns.

Most of the workers are women who are rural-urban migrants and have to support their families by sending remittances, while they are themselves living in precarious conditions, sharing tiny rooms with other garment workers. Outside of work, women workers also have to do domestic house chores, which are unpaid and naturalized as the duties of good housewives.

At the same time, the garment sector has seen a great deal of organizing before the coup. Over the last decade, factory workers started organizing themselves and formed labor unions. Almost 3,000 unions were registered by 2021. Strikes broke out across a large number of the garment factories. Concerns were raised about the exploitation of wages, forced overtime, wage theft, managerial harassment, poor working conditions, and unjust dismissal of workers. Workplace resistance was often repressed. One of the prominent cases is the Chinese-owned Fu Yuen Factory, where the management violently quashed the strike with hired thugs.


The Strike at Pou Chen


Leading up to the walkout strike on 25 October 2022, union members met with the workers and discussed why the current minimum wage was insufficient. They explained to workers the effect of the currency exchange rate on the wages and the prices of commodities, showing how unjust the low wages are. It wasn’t difficult to agitate the workers, since they knew they were being exploited and their rights violated.

On September 5, the union sent a formal letter to the management, requesting them to address the low wage issue by providing the workers with essential commodities such as rice and oil before they could negotiate a wage increase. In the meantime, workers started online campaigns by holding placards that say “Stop Wage Theft and Union Busting” and “Increase Minimum Wage, Respect Workers’ Rights.” But the factory did not consider the workers’ demands.

The union then announced they would be organizing a strike, and workers were encouraged to join the strike and check out the “Myanmar Pou Chen Union” Facebook Page. The union fully expected the risks of going on strike.

On 25 October, the walkout strike started with only 14 workers at first, but they were soon joined by 400 workers. They chanted the slogans such as “minimum wage is not sufficient” and “to gain better wages, our cause, our cause.” One worker explained why they organized the strike:

“Wage of 4800 MMK (US$2.25 per day) is insufficient for survival. With the increased prices of commodities – with cooking oil costing 7,000-8,000 MMK (US$ 3.50), and the price of rice around 3,600-4,000 MMK (US$ 2.00), the wage we get is not enough at all. The law says the minimum wage needs to be reviewed every two years (but it has not).”

Another worker added, “In addition to the insufficient wages, we don’t get other benefits. Non-absence incentive is relatively low compared to other factories. All our rights have been lost.” Although there is no increase in wages, the production targets increase. Ma Phyo Thida Win, the president of the Myanmar Pou Chen Union, said that workers had to produce 120 pairs of shoes per hour in 2018. Now, they have to produce 220 pairs of shoes per hour, but the wage stays the same. In order to meet the assigned quota, workers even cannot go to the bathroom.

On the very first day of the strike at Pou Chen, workers were intimidated by trucks of soldiers and police officers after the factory management notified them. “The military truck with nearly 20 armed soldiers followed us everywhere as we marched inside the factory estate,” one worker who joined the strike recounted.

Another woman worker remembered, “They warned us not to continue the protest the following day. We were threatened that we could be arrested if we continued the strike outside the factory area or if factory equipment got damaged during the protest”.

However, the striking workers continued their strike for the next two days, on October 26 and 27, with around 2,000 workers participating, despite threats and intimidation from management as well as from the police and the military.


Biased against Workers


In response, the factory management rejected the workers’ demands and fired 26 workers with unfounded accusations of violating the employment contracts. Amongst the fired workers, 16 were factory labor union members believed to have led the strike.

Ma San Yu Khine, who participated in the strike and was fired, shared:

“Even though we had been working very hard every day, the wage we got barely covered our basic needs. That’s why we demanded an increase in our wages. When we asked the factory officials why we got dismissed, they replied that we violated the employment contracts. We understood that we won’t get paid while we were on strike. All they can do was cut our pay, but they cannot dismiss us according to the contracts.”

The fired workers filed a complaint with the Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population and appealed to Adidas, calling for the reinstatement of the sacked workers. The employers continued to refuse to reinstate the fired workers, but then tried to offer ten-day worth of wages as severance pay to pacify them. However, the fired workers declined the offer.

Under the current dispute law enacted in 2012, the Pou Chen case is considered a dispute between employers and workers. As a result, the case needs to be resolved at the Working Coordination Committee (WCC), formed with equal representation of employees and employers: 2 representatives of the employers, and 2 representatives of the workers.

Since the adoption of the dispute policy, there have been concerns and criticisms raised by workers and labor activists regarding the effectiveness of the dispute resolution mechanism. Even before the coup, the existing policy provided little protection to workers since employers always failed to abide by the decisions, and penalties for breaking the rules were never adequate.

In post-coup situations where unionists are arrested and labor organizing is highly restricted, the resolution bodies are even less likely to make fair and just decisions. As labor rights activists have pointed out, the WCC representatives in the post-coup situations are workers with good relationships with the employers. In the Pou Chen case, union members were not even allowed to be included in the selection pool for WCC candidates. Therefore, the WCC cannot be seen as an adequate mechanism to pursue negotiations.

In December 2022, factory officials, who refused to reinstate the workers but now came under pressure, asked the fired workers to go back to work with a new offer. But the initial workers’ demands such as wage increases, manageable production targets by including the union members whilst setting the targets, and transportation arrangements were never addressed.

Pou Chen Labor Union’s president explained:

“Although we unionists organized the strike, other workers who are not union members have the same wish to get better wages. In fact, we are not breaking any rules or laws since this is our right. It is not enough to demand our rights from our factory only. Other factories also need to demand their rights in solidarity. Their offer doesn’t consider our initial demands such as paid overtime, manageable production target, and guaranteed days off. Instead, we are offered to compensate for our laid-off period.”

Furthermore, workers were required to refrain from organizing strikes again and from posting or disseminating the new contracts on social media.

By February 2023, out of the 26 dismissed workers, 17 refused to sign the new contracts since their original demands were not met. Reinstated workers were told that they would be sued if they violated the contracts. 13 workers resigned after agreeing to the severance pay, and 13 returned to work.


The Fight is Not Over Yet


Garment factory workers knew that they had to fight for their rights even before the coup, and now it is harder. Daw Moe Sandar Myint, the president of the Federation of General Workers Myanmar, stated:

“Although workers demanded increased wages when we had a civilian government, it wasn’t successful. The situation can be more difficult and challenging after the coup. Nevertheless, massive participation of the workers while demanding their rights for the collective cause is very important.”

While Pou Chen claimed the case has been resolved, union-busting is continuing at the factory. By restricting labor organizing, the government serves in favor of the capital. The existing policies failed to protect the workers. Businesses, backed by state institutions, have on the other hand taken advantage of the lack of the rule of law to exploit workers.

Yet deteriorating economic conditions such as rising inflation and lack of wage increases are likely to drive more workers into taking action. Although the Pou Chen workers did not secure their demands, their incredible tenacity and courage in the face of immense intimidation and retaliation showed the possibility of resistance. Their fight and the fight of workers in Myanmar are far from over.


Ma Cheria is a contributing writer at the Asian Labour Review. She is a MA student of Public Policy at Chiang Mai University. She is interested in labour issues with a special focus on labour policies and labour rights.