How Myanmar activists are finding a voice

Protesting a copper mining project in Sarlingyi in April 2013 Reuters

Myanmar has made an effort to improve labour conditions and civil society is becoming more active. But Myanmar expert Htwe Htwe Thein says that more could still be done, especially as many workers do not know their rights.

This content was published on October 15, 2013 - 11:00

Thein is a lecturer in international business at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. Her research interests focus on international trade and business investment in Myanmar.

In answers sent to, she analyses the current situation in the Asian country. She also considers the reforms carried out by the civilian government. This was installed in 2011 after many years of rule by a military junta, under which there had been human rights abuses. What are the main labour problems in Myanmar?

Htwe Htwe Thein: The main problems are the denial of freedom of association and labour organising by some employers, long working hours, including compulsory overtime, and serious health and safety issues in sectors such as mining and manufacturing. 

Basically, workers don’t know what their rights are and they don’t know whom to approach and how to make an official complaint. Some government officers and administrators are also unaware or unfamiliar with dealing with labour problems. Forced labour, child labour and repression of demonstrations around big projects such as mines and dams are important issues in Myanmar. Have there been any improvements in these areas?

H.H.T.:  Activists can hold protests and have their voices heard, which they were not allowed to do in the previous era. Workers and activists need to have better knowledge to be more effective. For instance, they need to know how to stage a protest in a more effective way and how to make a legitimate complaint to government departments. More and more foreign investments are flowing into Myanmar. Do you think that the government is able to channel them so they can benefit the people?

H.H.T.: Foreign investors are very keen to go and invest in what is considered to be the last untapped market in Southeast Asia, which is considered among the hottest prospective investment destinations, at least for now. The government needs foreign investment badly for various development projects, such as in infrastructure projects, health and education and manufacturing.

Unfortunately, the institutions in the Myanmar business environment are weak, and law and order enforcement mechanisms have been weak and inconsistently applied in the past. But what is fortunate, in my opinion, is that the country is seeing the emergence of a more active civil society, including labour and environmental activists. In addition to domestic activism, the country is also closely watched by international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who will try to ensure that business is conducted in a proper and responsible manner. Several NGOs have asked foreign companies to respect the environment and human rights. Is that the case, one year after the international sanctions on Myanmar were lifted?

H.H.T.: Before the sanctions were lifted, pro-democracy activists called for no new investment in Myanmar or divestment from the country due to the previous military government’s poor human rights record and its treatment of the opposition leader [Aung San Suu Kyi] and her party. Now that sanctions have been eased, they are encouraging business to go and invest in Myanmar, but to be cautious about where you are investing and with whom you are partnering.

The United States government has requirements for US businesses to make sure that they are behaving ethically and responsibly, especially those in the oil and gas sector where foreign investors have to work closely with the relevant government ministry which controls the extractive sector.

Given the incomplete nature of regulatory institutions and enforcement, foreign companies may have to rely on their own codes of conduct, whether or not these are required by local laws and conditions. They have to work with the government and the NGOs. Activists from home and host countries can keep a close watch on business, which may be a good thing for the people of Myanmar.

End to forced labour?

Myanmar is one of the few countries worldwide in which the authorities imposed forced labour, particularly in the rural regions.

Citizens, including children, could be called upon at any moment by the army or local authorities to carry out all manner of tasks, including the building of roads, bridges or barracks, transporting materials and repairs.

The unpaid work could last from a few hours to several weeks. The only way to avoid it was for a family or village to pay some “compensation”.

Since 2007, the International Labour Organization has been working with the Myanmar government to fight forced labour. The ILO’s representative in the country, Steve Marshall, has declared that it should be stamped out by 2015.

End of insertion Is the Myanmar government doing enough?

H.H.T.:  A lot more could be done in terms of encouraging what Aung San Suu Kyi is calling “responsible” investment. The newly introduced Foreign Direct Investment Law is a step in the right direction. It specifies restricted areas and non-restricted areas of investment. For example, it has some limitations on investment to protect local interests and employment.

When we say protecting local interests, we have to be careful too, because we don’t want to end up protecting the previous government’s business ‘cronies’, as they have near monopoly ownership in a lot of sectors of the Myanmar economy. What we want to protect is the provision of local jobs and employment and the development of local small to medium businesses, local culture and the environment.

The government has introduced the new labour law, which allows for trade union formation, provides mechanisms for resolving industrial disputes and allows for collective bargaining to take place. The government is also drafting new laws on minimum wages, occupational health and safety and other important workplace issues. It remains to be seen if these laws will be applied though.

H.H.T.:  There is an open question as to how such laws will be enforced and whether they are understood by employers, government officials and even workers. Serious labour and environmental regulation is something quite new to everyone in Myanmar, including public servants and law enforcement agencies. How do you evaluate the collaboration between the Myanmar government and the International Labour Organization (ILO)?

H.H.T.:  There is now a close collaboration. The ILO, in many respects, has a unique role and status in Myanmar because they have considerable independent powers to investigate and report on allegations of forced labour. The ILO has ongoing reservations and concerns over forced labour issues in the country but they have acknowledged that the government has made considerable progress in addressing the issue and is genuinely trying to improve the situation.

The ILO has also provided technical assistance to the government in the framing of new labour regulations and institutions. In many respects, Myanmar’s acceptance back into the international community has been linked to making real progress in addressing human rights and labour rights violations, so the relationship with the ILO is very important.

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