Life as a Worker, Life as a Union Leader, and Becoming a Feminist

Alotethama | ယခုဆောင်းပါးကို မြန်မာဘာသာဖြင့် ဖတ်ရှုရန် ဤနေရာတွင် နှိပ်ပါ

Cite as: 
Alotethama. (2023). Life as a Worker, Life as a Union Leader, and Becoming a Feminist. Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship, 4(1). https://ijbs.online/?page_id=4613


Abstract

This article is a reflection by an anonymous female worker on her early life, factory career in Yangon, and participation in labor organizing, industrial action and class struggle in, and against, the prevailing capitalist and patriarchal systems. The author points out many transgressions and injustices perpetrated by factory supervisors, managers and bosses and explains the decisions behind several important strikes in the period of 2002-2021, as well as how women came to take on more leadership roles after 2012. As a labor union organizer, she assisted with the establishment of several unions, networks and labor federations, and saw the complexities involved in workers struggling to maintain unity and the challenges of union leaders losing their integrity.

Start of a Protest

My birthplace is the village Yone Seik Kyun, which is on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River, in Yenangyaung Township of Magway Region. The land at the village is alluvial and my parents were farmers. I am the fourth daughter of seven siblings, so I have siblings both to rely on and to support. Due to climate change and riverbank collapses, we attended school in impoverished conditions. Our village only had a single primary school so we had to cross the Mone river by ferry to attend middle school in another village every single day. After middle school, one would have to go into town for high school, but for most villagers, student life ended with middle school. Quite a number of students do not go on to high school simply because their parents do not know the enrolment procedures, even if they can afford the school fees.

When I was still young, our parents were struggling financially, so they sent my older sister to Yangon to work. I managed to finish middle school at the village while helping out at the family farm doing small jobs like weeding. My parents told me that since I was a girl, I was prohibited from enrolling in a high school in town, but without their knowledge, I found out how to enroll anyway, using a transfer certificate. I remember drawing a doodle of a schoolgirl on a gourd while I worked in the fields, I hoped to go to high school so much. In the end, due to the insistence of two of my sisters—the one working in Yangon and another who had a heart condition—my dad enrolled me in high school. The school asked for just a small donation after they saw my dogeared transfer certificate and late enrollment. I did not do well at school and had no opportunity to take private tuition (to catch up). I knew I could not pass the matriculation examination but I took it anyway so that I could learn what it entailed and be prepared for next time. The 2001-2002 exam results were released: I failed. Consequently, I went on to Yangon like my older sister, both to take a job—and to continue my studies. I was seventeen.

The Start of My Life as a Worker

My first job was production line clerk at the Midas garment factory in 2002. I quit on my first day, without even learning what the wages were. I fainted from suffocation caused by dust while working, but no one came to my aid. The leaders of the labor department instead told me that such work was not for me, and that I should just become a sex worker. I was furious and quit immediately.

Normally, one gets a labor card for free, but I was underaged so I had to pay a bribe to get one. With that card I got a job at the Tai Yi shoe factory where my sister also worked. At the beginning, the seniors made me do extra work as I knew nothing yet. They used the bathroom during their shifts but told me not to and threatened to report me to management. They even warned that I could lose my job. Their displays of power and the way that supervisors there were always yelling made the job feel like hell.

At the time I thought that toiling in the field under the scorching sun back in the village was way better than this. But I did not want to upset my sister so I hid my tears. Later I learned from others that my sister was suffering just the same. I was shocked and indignant when I saw supervisors taping workers’ mouths shut and ordering them to stand on chairs as punishment for talking at work. I was incensed when the factory boss struck a worker’s hand with a hot iron. I lacked the guts to speak up and say that it was unjust, even to my colleagues, because if one of my coworkers reported on me, I could have lost my job.

Three months after I started working at the Tai Yi shoe factory in 2002, the workers organized a strike. It was not about wages. Rather it was about workers being prohibited from bringing their own food into the factory, even when they could not eat the food provided by the dormitory.1 Another reason was the fact that there were no cups provided for the drinking water. Workers are entitled to these rights. They should not have to demand them.

Even though I myself did not live at the factory dormitory, I joined the strike, my very first. I had never experienced such a thing growing up in the countryside. I had only seen people holding banners in protests on the international news.

In the following years, I took part in several factory strikes and campaigns, well known or otherwise, because I always worried that protesters would suffer if their strike was too small. I understood those who did not strike, for they had to support their families. Strike months were also difficult for me. I always regretted it when I received my wages. Nevertheless, I kept striking because each and every strike was trying to set things right.

Back then, I joined strikes with rage, because of what I knew even before I turned eighteen. Strikes were organized for various proclaimed reasons—for wages, or because the international supervisor was vicious, or because we had to work overtime until midnight. In my first few years of work I joined at least seven strikes. The first time I paid attention to what was just or unjust was when I entered the workforce. I do not remember the exact salary, but after one strike in 2007 we received a raise of 37,000 Myanmar Kyat. We rejoiced if we achieved just a single day’s holiday in an entire month.

After receiving my Tai Yi salary in February 2012, there were more wage-related cuts. Because of various oppression in this workplace, a paper call for a strike was posted in the female restroom, causing turmoil. Foreigner supervisors argued with evidence that the call was not from their department. An investigation followed after the news spread and the same pamphlets were found in the male restroom. No man admitted to writing it, and some said that it must have been a female who wrote it, as the handwriting appeared to be feminine.

It could have been that whoever wrote the call for a strike denied it due to concerns for their own security. Or it could have been that they denied it as if they could not possibly organize such a trivial event. What was certain was that all the men questioned said that no man could have possibly written it.

The supervisor of my department made us work on Sunday, our rest day, as an attempt to prove that the workers from his line weren’t responsible for the statement. Then on Monday we gathered (to strike) outside the factory, where there were many trees, away from supervisors and leaders because if they saw us, they would coerce us back to work. We organized the strike this way amidst many challenges.

Strikes During the Democratic Era

Many thought elections were what resulted in a change of governments, but we female workers had never heard of an election before. In 2012, we women came to lead labor strikes, which were becoming more frequent, as exploitation pervaded workplaces. It could be said that we ushered in a new dawn in the history of the labor movement in Myanmar. Previously, the role of female workers in industrial action was to spread information and to collect data, both important activities. We assumed we had to rely on the striking men who could talk and negotiate in the office. What changed in 2012 was that female workers did more than merely spread information and mobilize, they also stood unwaveringly in the front line and helped lead negotiations.

There is a reason why men were the default leaders in previous years. Every time there was a strike, senior officials from the Labor Office would come and ask us to write down our demands, and we would enthusiastically comply. But when it came to talking to the bosses about our demands, no woman dared to go into the office. There was also not a single woman among the visiting officials from the Labor Office, who would coax male workers into negotiations with their employers by promising that the workers would not be fired and had their support. Female workers chastised the male workers who were too hesitant to enter negotiations. Some only did so when they were told that they should wear a female longyi (because they were not acting like men).

When I think back now, pressuring men to lead when they lacked the desire and ability to do so was not right. The idea that leaders must be male prevailed among us at that time. We could not complain about the results of the male leaders’ negotiations with the bosses. They said that if we did not like what they did for us by taking much significant risk, then we should just do it ourselves. In 2012, one strike with no individual or collective leadership grew sizeable. Besides protests, we also fought at the forefront for drafting laws guaranteeing the right to organize labor unions under the so-called ‘civilian government’ that was controlled by the military.

Figure 1
One of the earliest worker strikes during the democratic era.



During the previous strikes, workers gathered outside factories. Within two hours, leaders from each factory department would arrive on scene. After they would ask our demands, male workers would step forward as our representatives to negotiate with the employer. After attaining some small gain in our workers’ rights, the strike would be called off.

But in 2012, having gained experience with negotiations, female workers themselves did the sums with calculators or pen and paper. It was encouraging. After the 2011 strike for a raise, wages for some workers increased from 100 Myanmar Kyat per hour to 110. During the 2012 strike, our wages were 75 Myanmar Kyat per hour and we demanded 150. After two months of striking, we decided to agree to a wage settlement of 120 per hour and return to work.

Figure 2
Outcome of the 2012 strike: An agreement between the factory owner and workers.



In the middle of the strikes, we organized the Tai Yi labor union with 2,111 workers in the hope that this union could negotiate with those in charge and workers would not need to go out onto the streets to strike. We would not need to fear being fired. We would negotiate using the power of the union. We were hoping that the union leaders who would partake in negotiations would not be those who would sway either side easily.

When a worker assumes the responsibility of leadership, her sense of responsibility and ability to make selfless sacrifices are priceless and sacred. Plucking up courage to take more responsibilities and turning one’s back on status gains one strength. This too is power—and this power is derived from the workers. If leaders are out of touch with the workers, this can lead to abuse of power. Since the workers are the raison d’être of the union, when workers no longer want or need the union, or when the union no longer works for the workers’ interests, the day has come for the end of the union.

We were resolute to fight against the oppressors in rank and file, using the power of solidarity. The union was not created just to facilitate talks with employers, nor is it backed by prominent individuals or political parties. The year 2012 was a year with by- elections and politicians from various parties were dabbling among the workers. We did not even know what a by-election was. We had no idea such a thing existed. It was all new to us. But we noticed that a lot of people and the media were coming to talk to us.

We remember 30 March 2012 as the day the police beat us with batons. We were in a situation like none we had ever heard of. On every avenue from the factory to the highway police had taken positions with batons and shields. The more oppressed and threatened we were, the more courage we could draw from these realities. A large number of female workers encircled those wanted by the police and the male workers. Women workers faced the fully geared up police unflinchingly. I had never seen such fully geared cops in my life and I felt as if I was in a scene from a Korean TV show. Then, just when personnel from the Ministry of Labor were about to intervene to deescalate the situation, the police began to beat the female workers.

In our opinion, the factory bosses wanted the workers to be attacked by the police. Only when everything was getting out of control did the employer come out to negotiate. That day we decided not to return home. Due to the mounting pressure from every side to end the situation before the following day’s national elections, we negotiated with the employer as best as we could, signed a contract and went home with our copy of it.

We decided to go back to work and continue to discuss our demands without causing further disruption. We decided that if the employer were to refuse any proposal to have a discussion in future, we would go out onto the streets again. We workers made these agreements among ourselves and came back to the workplace. We wrote on the walls of the female restrooms signs such as, “to strike is to seek justice”, “seeking collective decisions and solutions is for justice”, “our selfishness is for justice”, and “let’s use selfishness to make change”.

Unsung Heroes

After overcoming these myriad difficulties and getting back to work, many female workers emerged out of the more than 2,000 strikers deserving the highest commendations. During the strike, the factory dorms did not serve meals to its residents anymore. This food was critical for workers unable to save what little money they earned. But none complained. They showed fortitude instead. “Kids, come and eat before you go join the strike. I’m gonna be mad if you don’t eat what I cooked for you. You can achieve your goals only if your belly is full. Don’t feel bad later when I vulgarly chastise you. Come and eat”, yelled a female worker in front of the dorm with pots and pats before her. Her nickname was ‘old spinster’. When the strikes prolonged, not only dorm residents but also those living in private accommodation, who paid restaurants by the month for their meals, came to rely on the old spinster’s food. We later learned that she sold all her jewelry to take care of the female workers and cook their meals.

Was she the only one who made sacrifices for the strike and bore burdens without taking credit?

No. Each of those who actively partook in the strikes or were full-time participants of the union had family responsibilities. But our siblings took on these responsibilities in our stead. There were a lot of things to worry about before deciding to join the strike. We had to give up toiling over such things as our younger siblings’ education, families’ means of income, health issues, debts and so on. What enabled me to strike and take a leading role was that my sister struggled on my behalf. If she had convinced me to join the strike only after solving our own (family) problems, I would not have been able to fight for the workers. But she encouraged me to take part in the strike and assured me to leave everything else to her. If it was not for my sister, I would have had to prioritize my job security over the cause of the female workers. We women strikers were mostly all single. Our married colleagues could only advise and give support behind the scenes.

All my friends in the union were single. It was the married women, not the married men, who would stop being on the front line. One young and educated girl resigned from her strike leadership position, giving the reason that she was getting married. Those working for the union quit when they got married. We lost a lot of active female leaders that way. If married women take leadership responsibilities, they are met with protests or hindered by their husbands. We had to ask permission from the husbands whenever we wanted to hold discussions with the married women leaders.

Taking Up a Leadership Role

We persuaded more men to join us since the number of men was low on our board, which is made up of seven executive members and 45 local representatives. But we also came to question why leadership positions were so full of men, yet so few men were on the frontline.

It is necessary for workers to self-organize an independent workers union, free from undue influence and with no strings attached. The influence over the union must come from the workers themselves. Workers must give directives to union leaders. So, we democratically elected the leaders who would weigh the demands of workers and execute the decisions that were voted upon. I decided to take a risk and took up a leadership position.

When we held the election for board members, it was not a situation where candidates were encouraged and welcomed by more experienced members who promised to guide and help us. Members could not even propose one another as candidates. Only individuals who dared to self-nominate could be accepted.

A few of us reasoned that while anything could happen—we could be assassinated by hired thugs, lose our jobs and have our families immiserated, or end up in jail—we would stand firm in front of the workers, like a rock. We each nominated ourselves for leadership positions. Standing before the workers, we pledged that we would put their priorities first.

Those Benefitting From the Workers’ Affairs

Ever since the birth of the union there have been abuses of power. I call those who abuse their power political opportunists, or opportunists exploiting the workers’ cause. There was a group of people plotting to weaken our Tai Yi shoe factory union and its demands. When they failed to influence us, they conspired to organize a puppet union, even though we were already organizing into a union ourselves. A Member of Parliament (MP) got involved. Together they persuaded a mere hundred or so workers to agree to a wage of 100 Myanmar Kyat per hour with the illusion that their other demands had been met. Two groups of strikers from the same factory drifted apart. For a long time there was no successful mediation effort to unite the two groups, with most people maintaining they wanted a firm split. After about a year, the two groups realized the rift was weakening them both, and they were able to reunite.

After organizing the union, in line with the hearts of its members and in accordance with its rules, we systematically solved the problems within the factory. The board took leave from their jobs and visited other factories to help resolve their problems. Our union was the very first union under the 2011 Labor Laws so there was no recent model before us to follow. Every union member took it to heart that we had to be the model for future unions. We gave a lot of help to any new emerging unions.

Within our factory, the union and the workers coordinated to receive what was our due. I would like to highlight two examples. Our drinking water came from the tap at the corner of the factory which we sifted with a sieve and carried in a pot. Sometimes we just fastened cloth to the mouth of the tap so that it served as a sieve. During a conversation with workers on break, we union leaders discussed this drinking water. Gradually, more people joined the talk. We just moderated so that everyone could have their say without the need to contend for attention.

“Does anyone know that the water we drink is also used to bathe dogs and wash cars? I can’t take it anymore. What will the union do about it?”, said one female worker. “As a fellow worker, I mean no ill will to the janitor. But we’re not OK with them filling the drinking water right after cleaning the toilet and picking up the garbage. Please do something about this”, said another. “We drink water from the bottles but the bottles become dirty after two days. The water is filthy. We want to drink something clean. Please do something”, the voices continued and made manifest what we had to do.

A female worker brought a glass of water from the tap, showed it to the president of the union and asked her to solve the problem. We took the glass to every factory line and showed it to the works, convincing them not to drink the water. The workers went to the top of the factory building and shouted, “Please provide us with (clean) water bottles. We’re thirsty!”. Those from outside came to our help. Using funds for the union, we ordered a truckload of water and encouraged others to drink that water instead. And finally, we sent the aforementioned glass of water to the employer. Due to our unplanned movement where we consulted each other spontaneously, the employer issued an announcement that they would install a water purifier. Engineers examined the purifier, its maintenance, and inspected the machine—this was how the factory got its purified drinking water.

The second example is about the cleaning duties, within and without the factory, that befell each worker. Every Saturday, during the break after finishing lunch, we would gather and talk at the top of the building where food was served. We had to come and clean on our days off if the employers were not satisfied with our cleaning work. Those who were late for work were made to remove weeds or wipe windows as punishment. Some workers came to the union and asked if it was okay if they refused the extra duties. We said sure. They could leave it to us and the employer would come and talk to the union. In fact, the union president declared that workers who refused to perform those tasks would be doing a service for the union.

When the factory became filthy, workers called the foreign supervisors and asked them to do something about it, as they could not work under such conditions. When the problem reached the administration, worker representatives from each department and we union leaders discussed the problem with the employer’s team. We said we had helped the employer with cleaning for many years and we could no longer do so. Even though workers were being pressured to clean by their supervisors, they courageously defied them, and the cleaning then became the supervisors’ responsibilities. This outraged the supervisors, who then also joined the union. In the end, only the foreign supervisors, their translators and the most senior supervisors did not take the workers’ side. The employer then recruited more cleaners and workers could go home early without having to dirty themselves­ on early off-days like Saturdays.

From the beginning, the government allowed labor unions to form purely to act as a showcase for foreign investors. Neither employers nor the government wanted to see unions emerge as powerful institutions. The government enacted the law but there were no technical parts explaining the procedures to form a union. And just when workers were striving to organize unions and negotiating with employers to solve one problem after another, the government drafted technical outlines in haste. Even though our union was formed, for workers like us, many difficult tasks lay ahead. Some of them included limiting union funds and reporting financial accounts to the government every single month. With these challenges, we could not make much progress with the union, but we had to find a way through. Through democratic decision-making we decided not to fulfill all the government requirements and instead marched on. That way, not only the executives but also the workers would be active in the union. Not out of fear of government scrutiny, but to be transparent to the workers, we decided to settle accounts in a way intelligible to every worker in monthly meetings.

The government jailed the president of a labor union in Mandalay Region for two weeks under the allegation of financial misconduct. They checked the balance sheets after jailing him and found that there was no misconduct. The president had to stay in prison for two weeks for doing nothing wrong. This is a tactic to weaken a labor union. We must regard finances as the union’s lifeblood. Not that it can necessarily breathe life into a union, but that it can bring destruction to solidarity. So we shared this lesson with new unions and told them to be very cautious and spend money only with the mandate of the union.

Anti-Union Laws, Governments, and Institutions of Myanmar

There are many laws that make it difficult to form a labor union in Myanmar. Laws state that a labor union can only be formed by workers from the same factory. Workers from different workplaces are not allowed to organize under a single union. Over thirty workers in one factory or at least ten percent of all workers have to organize a petition. They must gather signatures and organize outside of working hours with many challenges. I thought it was impossible to organize a union beyond the factory level, say for township, region, or federal levels. But strangely enough, a federation of labor unions came to Myanmar without any members, local bases, or factories. Then they invited our Tai Yi shoe factory union to join their federation. At that time, the number of labor unions in Myanmar could be counted on a single hand.

We knew (from books) that if we could build solidarity with international trade unions and work hard step by step for years, we would be able to organize a federation of trade unions from the bottom up. However, this supposed federation of unions came about without grassroots organizing. Because of their invitations, we investigated them, and their objectives and plans for labor issues did not align with our strategy for workers’ rights. They made their plans without even talking to their workers about their intentions. We decided that we would not be able to cooperate with them.

One way that unions are crushed is through third-party organizations. We could not just let ourselves be trapped in our own problems at the factory. So we decided to encourage and advise workers from other factories and took turns to support their strikes. Our Tai Yi union became an enemy for bosses in general and third-party organizations.

I thought we had no problem with other labor unions, but we faced some situations where the workers would throw stones at us. Politicians feared that they would not be able to approach the workers and started inciting enmity between us and workers. It is easy to say sugar-coated words just to gain applause from workers. However, when we tried to stop some workers from making mistakes, our words were considered bitter. We, female workers are in the same situation. On their side, there were foreign educated scholars, lawyers, MPs and ex-prisoners, and with their different powers, they can evoke the passion of workers. There are also so-called previously imprisoned student leaders who tremble with rage when they are questioned about what their purpose is.

Although there are workers who admire the capacity and performance of the workers from Tai Yi factory, as the saying goes, “Cattle don’t eat the grass near their village”. Workers are only impressed by those who introduce themselves with big titles (for example: “I’m a Hluttaw candidate”, “I won the election in such and such year, went to prison because of the military coup, and was released yesterday”, “I am a student leader”) and by those who have more power than their fellow workers. If those people are really dedicated to work for labor issues, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot accept them. But the people who came to support the workers on strike in front of the factory took the workers out from the strike and asked them to hold jasmine flowers at the airport to welcome their leader who returned from abroad. We could only stand and watch as they took advantage of the workers. The fact that the workers were not on strike and were at the airport became an excuse for the employer to dismiss the workers. Workers lost their jobs and nobody took responsibility for it. We said this was wrong and that they incited enmity between workers and our union. Our plans were delayed.

Feminist Consciousness Through the Workplace

When I first learned about patriarchy, I could immediately see connections between oppressive rules at multiple levels in the workplace and people in power misusing their authority against victims of oppression and exploitation. In my family and my surroundings I also clearly saw the expectations of what someone gendered as male can do and what those gendered non-male can do. In my opinion, exploiting workers for one’s own power is part of patriarchy. People who help and honor those in power by means of prizes, in the name of an organization, are also part of the patriarchy. Those in power, as well, cannot be free from the shadow of patriarchy. I just reflected and came to understand that those in power, kowtowed and honored, are being used and they therefore could not escape from patriarchy. The main thing is that the authorities, people in power, and those in leadership positions in the workplace are mostly men, so I could easily see the relation between power and patriarchy that contributes to the oppression of the working class. 

Judicial Experience

In 2015 Myanmar workers were clearly shown that the judicial system was a joke. That year was an unsuccessful year for our union. It is imperative that we show others where we failed so that they can learn from it. The employer of the Tai Yi factory fired my friend (the union president) and I (union treasurer). Seeing this action as an attempt to drive a wedge between the union members, seventy percent of the union members decided to go on strike. The remaining thirty percent suggested seeking arbitration under the 2012 Dispute Resolution Law. I was delighted to learn that 70 per cent did not believe in the law. Although 30 per cent of the workers disagreed with the strike, we had to implement the collective decision by the majority in a democratic way.

Differences of opinion occurred in the union, and conflicts arose between the strikers and those who kept working, and as a consequence the union was weakened. The lesson learned from this incident is that if the workers are prevented from going on strike against their wish, it can be a threat to solidarity. We learned that we must respect the wishes of the workers. We can neither agitate nor control a strike. When solidarity among workers broke down, the employer seized the opportunity to come up with another idea to destroy the union. Based on the advice of their lawyer, the employer appointed a factory supervisor as an assistant manager and made them sue the workers as a plaintiff. That is an act of using one worker to fight other workers.

They selected ten workers from the union and sued them, alleging the workers sat down in front of the factory, holding hands and blocking the entrance. Some of the workers they chose to sue were executive members of the union, including myself, while others had not even been on strike at the factory that day. They asked for bonds of 1,000,000 Myanmar Kyat each if there was no guarantor at the court, but we attended the district court and argued that our priceless dignity was our bond. They fabricated a case with incorrect photos of people holding umbrellas in the rain, even though it was not raining on the day of the strike. But the judge ruled we were guilty anyway!

We hired a lawyer, but the judge issued a warning to lawyers that they must not talk about labor issues. Otherwise, the lawyers might have their licenses revoked. Therefore, we withdrew the power of attorney from our lawyer and defended the case ourselves. As workers, we did not care about the court procedures. We just defied the court saying if they were not satisfied, they could arrest us. On the 15 September 2018, the judge sentenced us with a fine of 500 Myanmar Kyat. My friend and I refused to follow the unjust decision and consequently we were imprisoned in a female ward inside Insein Prison, for exactly one week. The other eight also knew it was unfair, but because some of them were going to take exams, and some of them defended the case without the knowledge of their parents, they just paid the fine. One of the reasons they paid the fine is because of their familial responsibilities and gendered customs. If a girl goes to jail, she brings shame to herself and her family, and if there is a public servant among her siblings, they would not be promoted, etc.

All the union members showed their solidarity at the trial, and every day before we attended, we assembled on the street in front of the factory to talk about the misuse of power and the unjust judicial system. The workers participated more actively than before as they were worried that the union could be weakened by the dismissal of its leaders. The lesson that we tried to teach the bosses was that “the more oppression there is, the greater the resistance”.

The Tai Yi workers hated two woman managers in particular. However, we could see how they were only acting on behalf of their employers, implementing their orders. The bosses were the ones responsible for our imprisonment yet the plaintiffs who sued we workers were women. It was action under patriarchy because they sued only at the request of their male capitalist masters. The ordinary female supervisor in whose name the lawsuit was brought accepted a management position. But if we look at it, we can see how the boss male capitalists manipulated her to oppress workers. This is patriarchy. The supervisor who brought the suit oppressed workers to sustain her own power and promote her interests within the patriarchal system.

Network of Unions

If workers could organize their forces well, not only would they be able to help others effectively, but workers would join the unions with trust and respect. Whenever I met with labor union leaders from different places up and down the country, I invited them in solidarity to our office to discuss labor issues. At first, our goal was to organize labor unions and discuss what needs to be done, as well as compare different opinions. Accordingly, the trade union network was formed on 13 May 2013, and we held meetings and discussions in the office we rented, resolving many labor disputes.

At one meeting, a labor activist said that the network allows unions to abstain from cooperating with the network if they do not agree with a certain decision, but the other unions will still go ahead with the decision (as opposed to a consensus model). The abstaining union can then participate again and work with the network at the next meeting.

However, the network was not very straightforward, as it included not only labor unions, but also third party organizations who helped the workers. They said they wanted to hold ceremonies and take responsibility for expenses. There were also dissensions among workers because of the different leaders they worshipped. Consequently, we were the first union to leave the network despite the fact that we actively participated in forming it. The remaining labor activists and unions continued operating the network.

As unions were looking for a new force, we decided to form the Myanmar Trade Union Federation,2 founding it on 15 December 2013 with a conference. The person proposed by union leaders to be the chairman of the federation was unfamiliar to the workers, but I supported him. I took an executive role, but was not able to do much about the federation’s finances. I could not master the subject even as the next conference approached.

If you step forward for the workers, the main thing to do is to act in the interest of the workers. If you are in charge of an organization, you need to be accountable and you should not forget about the workers that you represent. This is something that labor activists must keep in mind. There are no privileges in labor issues, only responsibilities. If you think of it as a kind of power or authority, that poisonous thought must be removed. If you cannot take responsibility, do not involve in leadership.

Speaking of this, I want to question the despotic labor leaders who think that they are sacrificing for the workers. Is the workers’ interest also not your interest? This savior mentality is such a pity. These ‘sacrificing’ leaders also enjoy any results achieved, since they are in all the workers’ interest.

In 2015, the federation conducted another conference and held a democratic election. The federation’s intention was to elect real workers. My close partners and I decided not to run in the election but to work closely with the elected executive team. We chose to vote for new candidates over former executives who wanted to build power and those with political party experience. Because of this, the leader of the stevedores union was elected as the chairman of the federation, and the Myanmar Industry Craft Service—Trade Unions Federation was formed. No matter how the federations were formed, our Tai Yi union was praised for its discipline, but the executives did not like us because of our intense argumentativeness in discussions, but without taking certain sides. We strongly opposed the personal branding over labor issues and the lack of financial transparency. We wanted the federation, which the genuine trade unions worked hard to build, to be transparent and dignified.

Here I want to bring in the patriarchy again. Although male leaders in the workers movement themselves are oppressed, they hold power as honorable gentlemen and as union and/or federation leaders, so they want respect. Workers had to show deference to them, preparing seats for the chairman of the union when he arrived, and paying respect to him. We need to root out such practices. We all fought against dictatorship and we formed the union to resist oppression by employers. Some labor leaders’ abuses of power was just like the country’s military leaders. They shouted at the workers for not having chairs and water bottles ready when they entered a room. This was completely out of line. One should remain aware of how one became a leader. If one no longer has faith in the union and forgets why one wants to lead, it is better to resign. We emphasized that workers had the right to ask for their resignation and prepared as such. Because of this, our union became an enemy to others. We consider ourselves to be responsible only when we are being decisive and transparent like that.

Becoming Project Hunters

The fact that labor federations are isolated from what is going on at the ground level is frustrating. Although they were organized with many union members, they do not listen to the voices of all, and only serve the needs of foreign groups in the name of ‘projects’. For labor activists like us the essence of the union started to disappear because of external project money. Sometimes, ironically enough, we have to go to the embassies and attend meetings, feeling out of place. When foreign investments entered the country, the ambassadors of the investor countries called on workers and employers to listen to lectures on harmonious industrial relations.

The unions are not obliged to work within the framework imposed by the government. We are a group of workers organizing together for collective bargaining. But these good objectives disappeared when we fought for salaries, financial support, and trying to meet demands such as providing information for donors. We became project hunting capitalist labor unions.

After some time, the federation attempted to exclude the Tai Yi union for trying to question them about some projects. The federation (I am ashamed to say that it was once ‘our’ federation) secretly formed an audit team to check financial reports. The Tai Yi union and I were not happy and launched our own surprise audit. The federation then expelled the Tai Yi union leaders involved in the audit team from the federation. The audit team was merely checking the sum total of the financial reports and it came as a total surprise to the Tai Yi union, which had been issuing monthly reports to the workers. Like what happened with the then-government, when we were campaigning for these workers’ to be elected to leadership positions the federation, they happily ran with our support, but then when those same workers successfully gained power and we pointed out their mistakes, they oppressed us with despotism. After we sent a letter saying it was unacceptable to illegally expel a union member from the federation, the federation refused to accept any discussion, so the whole Tai Yi union resigned as a member of the federation on 19 June 2019, according to a decision of the plenary meeting. The federation’s dedication to helping workers was weak and they merely wallowed in their positions of power. Accepting educational projects from various international organizations is useless if you do not work with your heart.

The leaders accepted the terms “Gender”, “Human Rights”, “Feminism”, “Youth Affairs”, but never tried to understand or apply them. They attended every event dressed in fancy jackets; but no one asked if they actually listened to the voices of union members. Everything we tried to do since 2012 helped these people win power, but they did not help the workers. Now, the federation, which we formed and then resigned from, is working with the military junta to carry out ‘labor projects’—they have not been declared an illegal association like other unions.

In order to achieve liberation, we must first revolutionize the labor unions.

Will We Allow Our Union to Become Capitalist?

If unions have to run on capitalist models, then it is better to have no unions at all. Everything we build within frameworks created by capitalists and delivered by dictators will at some point turn into dictatorship itself, so the workers need to revolutionize themselves before that can happen. If patriarchy dominates, we cannot reach the destination we all long for. I would prefer to abolish the system rather than protesting in a union built and led by dictators. The Tai Yi shoe factory was closed down on 5 March 2021 after the coup d’état, and its eponymous union was dissolved. A labor activist stood up and shouted that even if the union collapses, our union spirit would remain alive.

With the limitations imposed by the capitalist system, we ended up feeling sorry for the lost solidarity of workers and wondered if the defunct Tai Yi union had left many scars. I am continuing my own journey thinking how to overthrow the dictatorship, fight against the capitalist unions and capitalists themselves, and achieve a situation where there is no alienation between the employer and employee classes. The lives of working women like me, who has devoted about 25 years of labor without any rights or guarantees, is that when they are no longer needed by employers, they have to pack their bags and return home. Employers no longer want to hire them because of their age. They migrated to the cities with various ambitions, worked very hard for their survival, but in the end, far from fulfilling their dreams, they lost their opportunity for education, passion and youth instead. Some were even imprisoned.

Conclusion: The Future of Myanmar Labor Issues

Many working on labor issues in Myanmar follow the path paved by foreign organizations. Consequently, they do not aim to represent the voice of the workers, but only want to achieve good reports. Just as bus ticket agents crowd in front of bus terminals to make a percentage on the tickets they resell, labor organizations gather at workers’ strikes and compete to represent them. It was heartbreaking to see labor organizations lose dignity.

Nobody cares about the issues of those who are not allowed to form a union as per the government’s policies. These people include construction workers, sex workers and daily laborers such as seasonal workers on bean and pulse plantations and chili farms. All the labor laws issued by the government are merely to protect the interests of employers. So long as one follows these laws, genuine liberation cannot be achieved. In the end, the so-called union that we built with our own hands, under the civilian government, has become disadvantageous to workers. I learned only one good lesson from everything that I experienced: we are far from liberating workers in Myanmar.

If a worker lost their job or had their pay cut, our union helped. But we were just scratching itches here and there. We could not get past these small things to do bigger things.

A friend once said that employers broke one law after another in the workplace just to keep us busy. The Tai Yi union was always occupied resolving labor issues on the factory floor. Since workers had to spend most of their time in the factory, non-worker activists took control of the trade union federation.

When those leaders worked closely with the government, they became separated from the situation on the ground and the voices of workers were excluded. The government intentionally drafted the labor laws in this way (to divide workers from their representatives). Even now, during the prevailing political situation after the coup, labor groups are still trying to form unions.

In the end, leaders who were dismissed from their jobs because of their labor activism ended up becoming salaried organizers of labor organizations to mobilize workers. After abolishing the class divide between employers and workers, labor unions can be abolished. From the standpoint of feminism, we must fight against the labor organizations that work on labor issues in a patriarchal way, just as we fight against capitalist labor unions, especially those who forget about the liberation of the workers. Those in the labor movement must strive to meet the basic objectives of forming unions. They must solve workers’ issues in the same diligent way that workers meet the daily quotas that their employers impose, down on the factory floor.

Endnotes

1 Most factory workers are from towns outside Yangon, and as part of the recruitment, factory owners arranged dormitories with room and board and deduct fees from the workers’ salaries.
2 For more about the federation, see International Labor Organization, 2019.

References

International Labor Organization. (2019). Country Baseline Un-der The ILO Declaration Annual Review: Myanmar (2000-2019). https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—normes/documents/publication/wcms_752602.pdf