Timothy Ryan: Let workers unionize freely
Aside from the elections in April, some of the highest-profile changes the Burmese government has introduced in the recent thaw have come in the labor sector. In October 2011, a new law allowing trade unions to organize and register was passed. March 2012 saw the passage in the legislature of implementing regulations to ostensibly implement this law and actually register unions.
The question today is whether the government will follow through.
The Labor Organization Law has many defects. As Earl Brown, the Solidarity Center's rule of law adviser and an expert on Burmese law, points out, "it allows for the complete suppression of strike activity for wages, hours and working conditions. It is poorly drafted and not harmonized with other Burmese laws or the new Burmese Constitution."
Nonetheless, the industrial workers, farmers, textile workers, and journalists I met with in Burma in January are eager to test the law. They've already organized independent unions and applied for registration, although none have yet gained recognition.
For two decades, the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma (FTUB) has been training labor activists both inside and outside the country, and these activists are forming unions to test the new law. One of the first things the government must do is allow for the registration of the FTUB under the new law and drop all the bogus charges of "terrorism" against U Maung Maung, the FTUB's general secretary.
Next, comprehensive legal reform of all labor and freedom of assembly laws to allow true freedom of association and collective bargaining must be enacted.
In addition, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to address industrial conflicts between labor and management in a fair and timely manner should be established.
Finally, since the Burmese labor movement is starting almost from scratch, workers and their unions need the opportunity to learn and connect with their counterparts in the international labor movement from all over the world, including ASEAN countries, Europe, and the United States. Burmese authorities should encourage rather than limit the ability of labor unions around the world to connect with and help educate young Burmese workers about self-representation and democracy.
When I met with Aung San Suu Kyi in January, she told me what she thought a future Burma labor movement and economy should look like. Her vision of Burma is not a low-wage garment manufacturer like Bangladesh. She told me it was important for unions to be responsible and to work for their members, and that the new unions should not be tools or fronts for any political parties, including her own National League for Democracy. She argued that political parties and the government should not create unions and made clear that the NLD had no desire or intent to do so.
Ultimately, the way for Aung San Suu Kyi's vision of a vibrant labor movement to become a reality is for the government to just leave it alone -- and let workers have the freedom to develop their own organizations.
Timothy Ryan is the Asia director of the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center.
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