'All Union Members Are Hereby Fired'

Hundreds of fired union members established a camp in late March in front of the factory gates, a common union tactic in Myanmar. Photo: Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar.

While workers around the world scramble for physical and economic safety in the pandemic, some factory owners in Southeast Asia see an opportunity to attack unions to increase their profits.

On March 28 the Myan Mode garment factory in Yangon, Myanmar, permanently fired all 520 union members working in the factory and withheld March wages, citing a decrease in orders due to COVID-19. But the Korea-based owners kept all 700 workers who are not members of the union, and the factory continues to operate.

The Myan Mode union is one of the strongest in the country’s garment industry, with a history of militant strikes to improve wages and conditions. For union president Maung Moe, the blatantly discriminatory firings send a clear message: “They want to get rid of our union, get rid of our voices, get rid of the requirement to treat us like human beings, once and for all.” He added, “They see the coronavirus as an opportunity get away with it.”

The firings came just minutes after union leaders held a contentious meeting with management in which workers demanded an end to mandatory overtime because of their fear of contracting COVID-19. Shortly afterward, management announced the immediate termination of all union workers over the factory loudspeakers.

With many garment factories around the world laying off workers or closing altogether due to the pandemic, many garment worker unions fear a spike in union-busting.

TEMPORARY CLOSING TACTIC

In recent years employers in Southeast Asia have increasingly used temporary factory closures to break unions. Owners briefly shut down the factory only to quickly reopen with new, non-union workers. Often they change technical details such as the factory’s name or registrant to circumvent labor laws, while maintaining the same core operation.

The Myan Mode workers, mostly young women from rural villages (Myanmar’s garment workforce is over 90 percent women), refused to accept their dismissals. Hundreds of union members established a camp in late March in front of the factory gates, a common union tactic in Myanmar. Union members eat, sleep, sing union songs, and otherwise live at the camp, sitting on the sun-baked dirt with nothing more than a nylon tarp to shield them from the hot sun.

Owners offered compensation to union members to accept termination and leave the protest camp, and camp numbers have diminished. A core of union workers, though, refuse to leave without reinstatement. Nearly100 remain and were joined April 6 by 40 non-union workers who elected to strike in solidarity.

Protest camp ranks have also been reinforced by workers from nearby garment factories who are members of the same union federation, the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM). Thus far, the union has chosen not to physically block the factory gates to shut down production, another common tactic in the country. A swarm of security around the factory has intimidated union leaders from doing so, and many of Myan Mode’s union leaders already face legal charges from assisting strikes at other union factories in recent months.

After five days of protests, owners finally agreed to negotiate April 2 but have refused to reinstate the fired workers.

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Undeterred, the union continues its protest and is aiming to expand the pressure. Leaders have begun reaching out to high-profile European brands whose goods are produced at the factory. The protesters recently traveled in a group to both the Korean consulate and the Myanmar labor conciliation office.

On April 3 the factory owner finally agreed to pay the dismissed workers their previously denied March salaries. But many continue to sit firmly in front of the factory gates to demand reinstatement.

“If we don’t win our jobs back, I don’t know how we can feed ourselves or our families back in our home villages,” said Moe. “If we don’t protect the union at the factory, the wages won’t be enough, the workload will destroy our bodies, and there will be no safety protections. There’s no future for us without the union.”

The minimum wage for garment workers in Myanmar is roughly $3.50 per day. Myan Mode workers, through several hard-fought strikes, had won approximately $4.75 per day—giving workers a glimmer of hope. With a typical one-bedroom apartment in the Myanmar industrial areas costing roughly $100 a month (even the notorious dormitories employers frequently rent to workers typically demand half their total wages), a true living wage would require an even larger increase.

According to workers, the union is being targeted because of its recent success addressing egregious working conditions. Moe said, “Our union won the right to ‘gate passes’ to leave the factory when we need to during work hours, whereas before we were not allowed to leave, literally locked in. We’ve also won more reasonable production targets, so our bodies aren’t quickly broken.”

Myan Mode workers’ struggle reflects the struggle of thousands across the country. Half a million in Myanmar work in garment factories, and a wave of strikes over the past year increased the number in unions to about 50,000. While many have hailed the growth of the industry as a sign of Myanmar’s economic development, harsh poverty persists: Myanmar’s minimum wage is near the lowest in Asia, life expectancy is the lowest on the continent, rampant sexual harassment is reported in the factories, and workers frequently live in company-owned dormitory-style slums.

In a country with little to no safety net and weak labor laws, the union movement in the garment industry represents workers’ best hope of escaping lives in sweatshops and winning anything resembling decent living conditions.

The pandemic has thrown the global garment industry into chaotic uncertainty. Many advocates have launched campaigns to ensure fashion brands pay for orders they had already placed, to ensure workers are paid for work already done. Yet the brands and factory owners must be held to a much higher bar than this alone. Any wages owed should be paid and wage subsidies during factory closures will alleviate the immediate suffering, but unions must be protected if we want decency in the industry long-term—in Myanmar and in other garment-producing countries.

Andrew Tillett-Saks is a labor organizer based in Southeast Asia. A version of this story previously appeared on the website of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center.