Myanmar: industrial women workers are fighting back – revive the labour movement!

Yesterday in Myanmar, we saw a spontaneous outbreak of industrial workers’ protest against wage cuts, worsening conditions in the workplace and the intensification of work at the A Dream of Kind (ADK) garment factory in Mingalardon township, Yangon. Around 2,000 women workers are demanding labour rights, guarantee of sick leave, casual leave, social welfare, and a wage increase.

Violations of labour rights and various forms of oppression are rampant in the factories. These workers are now being forced to work at least six days per week, from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM, without an increase in pay. Moreover, they are often compelled to work overtime on Sundays. 

For the bosses, even this is not enough. They demanded workers increase productivity from 45 garments per hour to 62 garments per hour – an intensification of labour that aims to extract more and more surplus value within the same amount of working hours. 

For workers, enough is enough! They have to fight back to win a decent existence. 

Repression

Twenty soldiers and police officers, under the authority of the ruling military junta, arrived in front of the factory at 11:00AM to terrorise the women workers. In fact, these industrial zones have been under martial law since the 2021 spring revolution. 

One month after the coup on 1 February 2021, the regime made workers’ organisations and trade unions illegal, ending workers’ right to freely organise. Some labour activists had to flee when the military brutally cracked down on the mass movements. 

Since then, Myanmar’s labour movement has been thrown back and the capitalists have been emboldened to increase exploitation and oppression. In the aftermath of the coup and the mass movement, hundreds of industries and businesses closed down, leading to more than 1.5 million workers being kicked out of their jobs.

Under the mounting pressure of the massive reserve army of the unemployed, those lucky enough to have a job have had to tolerate various forms of workplace oppression and deep exploitation. The minimum wage is 4,800 Kyats (2.2 USD) per eight hours.

Workers’ wages in real terms have halved as the prices of basic goods have skyrocketed in the one-and-a-half years since the coup. 

The exchange rate of the Myanmar Kyat against USD was around 1,300 Kyats per USD immediately before the coup. It is now around 2,100 Kyats per USD. 

The cost of living for workers has at least doubled, and at the same time their wages have stagnated and their real purchasing power is significantly reduced. Added to the devaluation of Myanmar’s currency and price hikes is the employers’ tactic of firing and rehiring workers on worse terms and conditions, which makes their lives unbearable. 

The receding class struggle and new fightback

Although the organised working class ignited the mass movements against the military junta in the early months of the last year, the class struggle has receded since April 2021, following massacres and brutal clampdowns by the military. 

The labour movement was temporarily thrown back. Armed clashes in the rural areas and so-called urban guerrilla activities of various groups of militias substituted themselves for the mass struggle. The independent and leading role of the organised working class was not part of the equation.

The self-proclaimed National Unity Government (NUG), the liberal bourgeois wing of the ousted NLD party, took advantage of this situation and deceived the ordinary people by sowing illusions in imminent victory of the “armed struggle”.

The World Bank estimated that Myanmar’s economic recession caused about an 18 percent shrinkage of the economy in 2021. This recession is compounded by hyperinflation, debt burdens and the brutal repression of the military counter-revolution – massacres and a scorched-earth policy against the anti-coup militias. In fact, these methods are not just applied against the militias, but indiscriminately against civilians as well.

The junta’s armed forces set villages ablaze and burned down 18,886 houses within 16 months of the coup, according to Data For Myanmar group.

In this situation, most militant and radicalised youth are attracted to the Maoist idea of “encircling the cities from the periphery”, i.e. organising guerilla struggle in the countryside as a precursor to seizing the urban centres. 

Mao’s famous quote, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” is once again popular among these radicalised youths. Unfortunately, in practice, this has meant they have sidelined the independent and leading role of the urban working-class movement. Various groups of militias have tried to substitute themselves in place of the mass struggle.

Against this backdrop, we saw the outbreak of the spontaneous protest of thousands of industrial women workers in Yangon, the urban centre of Myanmar. This movement is very significant, and could signal a potential reawakening of the working class on the industrial front, despite the absence of leadership and even trade unions. 

Based on this experience, it is necessary to generalise this action and revive the labour movement, putting forward an independent programme of class demands. The leading organisers of the Yangon protest must strive to convert this spontaneous struggle from below into permanent union and workers’ organisations, and call on other sections of the Burmese working class who are also in deep ferment, to follow suit.

The bankruptcy and betrayal of the liberal bourgeois NUG has been exposed day after day. This is why any intervention from those elements into this struggle must be fiercely resisted by the workers. The working class needs its own independent mass party instead of following the liberal bourgeoisie. 

Towards this heroic struggle, the Marxists must make clear:

  • We are in solidarity with the striking workers!
  • The right to employment, right to organise, right to strike are fundamental rights of the working class!
  • We demand a sliding scale of wages in accordance with the inflation rate and commodity prices: totalling at least 10 USD per 6 hours!
  • Not more than 36 hours of work per week!
  • End fire and rehire!
  • Fight for a mass workers' party!
  • Down with the military regime!
  • For a revolutionary struggle by the workers to win workers’ democracy and socialism!