The Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, are trying to suppress the people's opposition to their coup with increasingly more force. Workers and students have been arrested for participating in the peaceful protests, and the military has started to use live ammunition. Workers continue to resist.
“Workers were already angry, they were already activated”, said Daw Moe Sandar Myint, who has been on the frontlines of the movement against the coup. “A familiar feeling of suffering had returned and they could not stay silent.” This anger pushed her and many others to lead factory workers into the movement.
Soon after the coup was declared, a massive, civil disobedience movement emerged, with workers and trade unions front and center. In one of the earliest mobilizations, medical workers from over 110 hospitals and health departments in 50 townships across Myanmar were among the first who rose up and went on strike.
Teachers were also quick to join the movement with their students. Seven teachers’ unions, including the 100,000-strong Myanmar Teachers’ Federation announced work stoppages.
The trade union federations were quick to mobilize. The Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), the largest trade union federation in Myanmar, called for the first general strike on February 8. The more recent general strikes since February 22 have seen participation from workers across a greater spectrum of Myanmar society. Despite threats of arrest and dismissal workers in a wide range of sectors, including garbage collectors, firefighters, electricity workers, private bank employees, and garment workers initiated waves of strikes, and many joined street demonstrations.
Andrew Tillett-Saks, a labor organizer based in Myanmar, emphasizes, "The sight of industrial workers, largely young, women garment workers, seems to have deeply inspired the general public, broken down some of the fear, and catalyzed the massive protests and general strike we are seeing now.”
Employees from municipal governments and various government ministries have joined the strike actions, leaving many departments deserted in the past week. The labor actions hit particularly hard in the transportation sector. According to an official from the Myanmar Railways (MR), 99 percent of railway employees are on strike, leading to a shutdown of train services. Striking workers managed to shut down the military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, Myanmar National Airlines, mines, construction sites, garment factories, and schools, creating economic costs for the military rulers.
Working people are boycotting the military’s extensive business interests in food and beverage products, cigarettes, the entertainment industry, internet service providers, banks, financial enterprises, hospitals, oil companies, and wholesale markets and retail businesses.
Workers’ militancy has been building over several years. As the country opened itself up for foreign direct investment nearly a decade ago, the government agreed to major labor law reforms, legalizing trade unions and codifying labor rights in the 2011 and labor dispute resolution mechanisms in 2012. However, Myanmar labor activists have argued that the laws seek to channel workers into legal avenues that are far less powerful than their militant, mass actions to demand real improvements to harsh working conditions and the low minimum wage, which currently stands at 4,800 kyats (U.S.$3.26 per day).
“When one strike happens, other workers see that the strike works,” said Daw Moe Sandar Myint, a leader of the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar and herself a former garment worker, describing the strike wave in the garment sector. “They come to know the taste of the strike, and it is a good taste. The strike also gives them the union.”
A wave of militant strikes swept the garment sector in 2019 to demand higher wages and safer working conditions. The $6 billion industry, which employs 700,000 mostly female workers, supplies global brands such as H&M, Zara, C&A, among others. It accounted for 30 percent of Myanmar’s exports that year—up from 7 percent in 2011, when the country’s democratic reforms began.
Employers took advantage of the business disruptions wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic to bust unions by laying off their members. Workers at multiple factories went on strike early in the pandemic to receive their unpaid salaries and compensation for their dismissal. in March 2020, the Myan Mode garment factory permanently fired all 520 union members and withheld their wages, citing Covid, while keeping its 700 non-union workers. The union organized protests and was able to secure withheld wages for the dismissed workers.
The organized participation of workers and their unions in both the public and private sectors is one of the most crucial factors pushing the civil disobedience movement forward and determining the future of Myanmar.
Workers in Myanmar have demonstrated that direct actions are powerful and they work. Whether by organizing and engaging in militant strikes in their workplace, or by walking off their jobs and joining street demonstrations, they are fighting to defend their democratic rights and win a better life for workers in the country and around the world.