Burmese granted right to strike, unionise

Workers in Burma have been granted the right to unionise and to go on strike, officials said Friday, after new legislation was signed into effect this week by President Thein Sein. The move has been welcomed by UN officials.


AFP - Workers in military-dominated Myanmar will be allowed to unionise and go on strike for the first time in decades, officials said Friday, under landmark new legislation welcomed by the United Nations.

The law was signed into effect by President Thein Sein on Tuesday, government sources said, and replaces the repressive 1962 Trade Unions Act, in the latest sign of tentative reform by the authoritarian regime.

"Workers will have the right to form unions and to strike under the law," a government official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The legislation stipulates that workers, with the exception of military and police personnel, may set up a union with a minimum of 30 members and come up with their own name and logo.

Employers must be given up to 14 days notice of industrial action and unions must specify in advance how many people will take part in the strike, it said.

Providers of essential services, such as healthcare, firefighting, telecommunications, the supply of water and electricity, do not have the right to strike.

The text also states that employers in breach of the new rules risk a 100,000 kyat fine ($125) or one year in prison, while employees face a fine of 30,000 kyat ($38).

"Although we can't say that everything about the new labour law is good, we have to welcome it," Nyan Win, a lawyer and spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy party, told AFP.

The International Labour Organisation also cheered the new measure, although Steve Marshall, the UN agency's liaison officer in Myanmar, cautioned that he had not yet read the full text of the legislation.

"But in principle there is no question that the law is a major step for the government of Myanmar," he told AFP. "It is a very important factor in terms of the development both socially and economically of the country."

A well-respected Yangon businessman who did not wish to be named said he applauded the new law because he believed workers had a right to organise.

"Trade unions must exist in a democratic nation," he told AFP.

But the ILO's Marshall said that in a country where labour activists have frequently ended up behind bars, it would take a while before workers felt brave enough to take action under the newly-passed law.

"It is a new approach and a new culture," he said. "It will take some time. We will not see immediate change overnight."

The labour law is the latest evidence of a modest wind of change blowing through Myanmar in recent months, as the new nominally-civilian government tries to show it is serious about embracing change after decades of repression.

On Wednesday, the regime pardoned about 200 political prisoners in a much-anticipated amnesty though critics said the gesture did not go far enough as most of the country's roughly 2,000 political detainees are still locked up -- including many labour rights advocates.

"There remain quite a number of labour activists still in prison," Marshall said.

Myanmar expert Sean Turnell from Australia's Macquarie University said the authorities would have to reassure a sceptical public that they would let the unions operate in peace.

"The real test will come with implementation -- will people really be able to strike?" he asked, adding that it would take "a huge leap" of faith for workers to suddenly start protesting.

"People have to feel that they can trust those laws, so it is going to take some time I think before people are convinced."

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