Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
After the military coup on February 1, the regime committed widespread abuses against organized labor, including the unlawful detention and extrajudicial killing of labor union leaders and members for exercising their fundamental freedoms and basic human rights. After the coup, labor laws often went unenforced or were enforced primarily against organized labor and labor activists and in the interests of business owners and the regime.
The military declared at least 16 labor unions illegal and issued arrest warrants for more than 85 union leaders, including 11 of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar, and many union leaders remained in prison or missing. There were numerous reported raids of trade union offices and union leaders’ homes. More than a dozen union leaders were killed.
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct strikes. The law permits labor organizations to demand the reinstatement of workers dismissed for union activity, but it does not explicitly prohibit antiunion discrimination in the form of demotions or mandatory transfers, nor does it offer protection for workers seeking to form a union. The law does not provide adequate protection for workers from dismissal before a union is officially registered. The law prohibits civil servants and personnel of the security services and police from forming unions. The law permits workers to join unions only within their category of trade or activity, and the definition of trade or activity lacks clarity. Basic labor organizations must have a minimum of 30 workers and register through township registrars via the Chief Registrar’s Office of the regime Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population (Ministry of Labor). The law permits labor federations and confederations to affiliate with international union federations and confederations.
The law provides for voluntary registration for local NGOs, including labor NGOs working on labor matters, as long as they do not receive foreign funding. The military authorities interfered in the operations of the International Labor Organization (ILO) country office, including through the continued imposition of banking restrictions, the denial of visa extensions for ILO officials, and the denial of tax exemptions.
The law provides unions the right to represent workers, to negotiate and bargain collectively with employers, and to send representatives to a conciliation body or tribunal; however, there were reports that employers dismissed union leaders with impunity or with military support. The law stipulates that a management committee, including government and nongovernmental representatives, in the special economic zones be the first instance arbiter in disputes between employers and employees.
In March, however, the military took control and imposed martial law over two major industrial zones located in Hlain Thar Yar and Shwe Pyi Thar Townships, Rangoon Region, as well as other townships with a high concentration of industrial and manufacturing enterprises. Labor representatives alleged that some employers hired military-affiliated security guards to harass and intimidate workers, sometimes leading to fatal violence when disputes arose. On March 16 at Xing Jia shoe factory, the employer reportedly called in police to deal with a dispute with a group of workers seeking their pay. The police opened fire and killed at least six workers.
The law provides the right to strike in most sectors with significant requirements such as the permission of the relevant labor federations. The law prohibits strikes addressing problems not directly relevant to labor matters. The law does not permit strikes or lockouts in essential services such as water, electric, or health. Lockouts are permitted in public utility services (including transportation; cargo and freight; postal; sanitation; information, communication, and technology; energy; petroleum; and financial sectors), with a minimum of 14 days’ notice provided to the relevant labor organizations and conciliation body. Strikes in public utility services generally require the same measures as in other sectors, but seven days’ advance notice and negotiation between workers and management is required before the strike takes place in order to determine maintenance of minimum service levels.
The government did not effectively enforce labor laws related to freedom of association. Penalties for violations of related labor laws were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights; however, laws were enforced primarily against independent trade unions and not employers.
After the coup, strikes and collective worker action led to retaliation by the military, including workers forced to return to work at gunpoint. On February 19, shipping and jetty workers in Mandalay went on strike to support the CDM. There were reports that the military tried, at gun point, to force the workers back to work, but large crowds gathered to block and drive the military away. The military fired into the crowd, killing protesters. The military evicted striking railway worker and their families, forcing them to flee.
After a national work stoppage began on March 8, the military publicly stated that all public sector workers must return or face criminal charges. There were reports of at least 1,100 public-sector workers from various departments receiving some form of threat or discipline because of participation in the CDM.
Workers at some unionized factories negotiated leave agreements so they would be granted leave to attend the demonstrations. Employer refusal, in some cases, led to work stoppages. There are numerous reports of workers fired for participating in the CDM. Many reported postings at factories saying workers would be fired if they participated in the CDM.
Worker organizations reported that formal dispute settlement and court procedures were not effective at enforcing labor laws. After the coup, there were multiple reports of worker disputes handled with military interference.
Labor organizations also reported that local labor offices imposed unnecessary bureaucratic requirements for union registration that were inconsistent with the law.
The Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar reported the arrest and harassment of trade unionists by regime security forces after the coup, including the secretary general of Myanmar Infrastructure, Craft and Service who was detained in June when the regime raided the infrastructure, craft, and service union office in Mandalay. Labor sources reported the secretary general was not allowed to meet any visitors or access legal aid while in detention. In a separate case, regime authorities detained the director of the Solidarity Trade Union of Myanmar at his office in April. Labor sources reported the regime denied the director access to medicine and other necessary health care to manage her chronic illness while in detention. The regime released the director in October as part of a general amnesty and without pursuing formal charges. On October 12, a military tribunal also sentenced two union organizers, U Yen Tu Htauk and Ma Kyi Par Lay, to life in prison.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits most forms of forced or compulsory labor, although insufficient barriers exist for the use of forced labor by the military and penal institutions. The law also provides for the punishment of persons who impose forced labor on others. The law provides criminal penalties for forced labor violations; penalties differ depending on whether the military, the government, or a private citizen committed the violation. The penalties were commensurate with analogous serious crimes such as kidnapping. The regime did not effectively enforce the law, particularly in the areas where significant conflict was occurring.
In early 2020 the government established a forced-labor complaints mechanism under the Ministry of Labor. There were no data available on the functioning of or the number of cases reported to or processed by the mechanism since the coup. The ILO expressed profound concern over practices of the military authorities, including the use of forced labor.
The regime threatened CDM members with criminal charges if they did not return to work (see also section 7.a.).
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor, although the regime did not meaningfully enforce the law. The law sets the minimum age at 14 for work in certain sectors, including shops and factories; the law establishes special provisions for “youth employment” for those older than 14. There is, however, no minimum age for work for all sectors in which children were employed, including agriculture and informal work. The law prohibits employees younger than 16 from working in a hazardous environment, but the government did not issue a list of hazardous jobs. Some sector-specific laws identify activities that are prohibited for children younger than 18. Penalties under the Child Rights Law were analogous to other serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
Children worked mostly as street vendors, refuse collectors, restaurant and teashop attendants, garment workers, and domestic workers. Children often worked in the informal economy, in some instances exposing them to drugs and petty crime, risk of arrest, commercial sexual exploitation, HIV, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted infections (see also section 6). Children were also vulnerable to forced labor in teashops, agriculture and forestry, gem production, begging, and other fields. In rural areas children routinely worked in family agricultural activities, occasionally in situations that potentially involved forced labor. Child labor was also reported in the extraction of rubies and jade and the manufacture of rubber and bricks.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
Labor laws and regulations do not prohibit employment discrimination. Restrictions against women in employment exist based on social and cultural practices and beliefs. Women remained underrepresented in most traditionally male-dominated occupations (forestry, carpentry, masonry, and fishing) and were effectively barred from them by hiring practices and cultural barriers. Women were not legally prohibited from any employment except in underground mines. The law governing hiring of civil service personnel states that nothing shall prevent the appointment of men to “positions that are suitable for men only,” with no further definition of what constitutes positions “suitable for men only.”
There were reports that government and private actors practiced discrimination that impeded Muslim-owned businesses’ operations and undercut their ability to hire and retain labor, maintain proper working standards, and secure public and private contracts. There were reports of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, including the denial of promotions and firing of LGBTQI+ persons. Activists reported limited job opportunities for many openly gay and lesbian persons and noted a general lack of support from society. Activists reported that in addition to general societal discrimination, persons with HIV or AIDS faced employment discrimination in both the public and private sectors, including suspensions and the loss of employment following positive results from mandatory workplace HIV testing.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: The official minimum daily wage was above the poverty line. The minimum wage covers all sectors and industries and applies to all workers in the formal sector except those in businesses with fewer than 15 employees. The law requires the minimum wage to be revised every two years. The government also established tripartite committees in the Special Economic Zones responsible for setting wage levels and an inspector for each zone.
The workweek is 44 hours per week for factories. For shops and other establishments, it is 48 hours per week. Although the law in general states that overtime should not exceed 12 hours per work week, the law allows up to 16 hours of overtime when special matters require additional overtime. Overtime for factory workers is regulated under a separate directive that limits overtime to 20 hours per week. The law also stipulates that an employee’s total working hours cannot exceed 11 hours per day (including overtime and a one-hour break). Laws did not apply to those in the informal sector or self-employed.
Occupational Safety and Health: The 2019 Occupational Safety and Health law sets standards for occupational safety, health, and welfare. The Ministry of Labor has the authority to suspend businesses operating at risk to worker health and safety until risks are remediated.
Labor unions reported instances in which workers could not remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment. Unions reported that workers concerned about COVID-19 positive cases in factories were nonetheless required to work.
The Ministry of Labor’s Factories and General Labor Laws Inspection Department oversees labor conditions in the private sector. Inspectors were authorized to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.
The regime did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties for wage and hour violations were commensurate with those for similar violations, but penalties for safety and health violations were not. The number of labor law inspectors and factory inspectors was insufficient to address wage, salary, overtime, occupational safety and health standards, and other matters adequately. In some sectors other ministries regulated occupational safety and health laws (e.g., the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation).
Informal Sector: Observers agreed the great majority of the country’s workers were in the informal sector. Wage, hours and occupational safety and health laws did not apply to those in the informal sector or self-employed.
Informal workers’ jobs were less secure during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, in April 2020 the Ministry of Health ordered that no more than 50 workers could be present at a construction site. One of the largest employers of informal labor was the construction sector. The postcoup regime retained the policy.
Informal-sector jobs usually lacked basic benefits such as social and legal protections. In at-risk industries – defined as having occupational hazards, volatile payment structures, and ease in exploiting labor rights – on average, one in five workers had an informal work arrangement, although the proportion was even higher in manufacturing, construction, recreation, and personal services. In addition, nearly two-thirds of the workers in medium- to high-risk industries were employed informally.