South-east Asia: thousands strike in Burma and Vietnam

( Shoe factory workers in Burma confront notoriously tyrannical authorities while workers at Yamaha motorcycles in strikes over pay.

More than 1,500 workers at a factory in Rangoon have braved the heavy-handed reputation of Burmese authorities to go on strike, demanding an increase to their meagre salary. The men and women of Taiyi shoe factory, who are now four days into their strike, have cried foul of the unfeasibly low wages which see them earn just $US0.70 for a 12-hour day.

Factory owners yesterday agreed to raise the hourly pay by a fractional 15 kyat ($US0.01), but the strike continues.

“The workers said they wouldn’t start working until they get 75 kyat [$US0.08] per hour,” said a source close to the workers. “The factory sounds the siren [for workers to begin their day] at 7am but instead of going into the factory, the workers are sitting outside continuing the strike.”

One worker commented: “We want to demand our rights peacefully”. He said that the recent price hike in general commodities and transportation costs have pressured him and his fellow workers to demand better pay. “We can no longer survive on our current income. We are compelled to do this.”

Four police vehicles are stationed at the top of Kanaung Minthargyi Street which leads to the factory in Hlaing Tharyar industrial zone. Civilian vehicles have been blocked from entering the compound.

Strikes by some 700 workers at two garment factories in Rangoon, the United World factory and Oscar factory, last month met with success after employers agreed to their demands for better working conditions. And a year ago a series of workers’ strikes rocked factories in Rangoon, and led to calls for stronger labour union laws in Burma.

Unions have been legally allowed in Burma, although a clause in the 2008 constitution states that their formation is conditioned on not being “contrary to the laws enacted for [Burma’s] security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquillity, or public order and morality”. The subsequent definitions for these criteria are vague.

Labor activists in Burma are hoping to form a union when a new government is formed in the coming months. However, several factory workers have said that any future union will be formed of only the factory owners and government officials from the Labor Ministry, and would, therefore, not be representative of their needs.

About 3,000 employees from the Yamaha Motor plant in Hanoi walked off the job on Monday 7th March. Management told the other 2,000 workers to stay home Tuesday while discussions continued with the union.

Workers are seeking an increase in the basic monthly salary from 1.65 million dong ($78.57) to 2.03 million dong along with a rise in their housing and other social allowances. The company had already agreed to raise pay for some workers, but that was before the government increased the price of subsidised petrol by 18% in late February. After fuel prices rose, electricity rates increased by 15% on March 1, adding to the worries of citizens trying to cope.

Vietnam’s inflation reached 12.3% year-on-year last month, according to official data, far higher than in neighbouring states, although rising consumer prices are emerging as a top concern for policymakers throughout Asia.



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