Press release: MMN Bottom of ASEAN workshop, ACSC/APF 2014, Yangon, Myanmar

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On 22 March, the Mekong Migration Network (MMN) held a workshop entitled “the Bottom of ASEAN”, during the 11th ASEAN civil society conference / ASEAN people’s forum held in Yangon, Burma/Myanmar. The workshop was co-hosted by Legal Support for Children and Women, Cambodia, Foundation for Education and Development, Thailand, Generation 88, Myanmar, and Workers Hub for Change, Malaysia. Over 100 participants from 15 countries, including 50 workers from industrial zones in Burma/Myanmar, and labour activists from Cambodia who have been active in the recent garment worker strikes in Phnom Penh attended the workshop.

Ms. Reiko Harima, MMN Regional Coordinator, explained MMN’s concern that the current investment trends in Burma, Cambodia and Laos, countries characterised by having the lowest wages and least protection of labour standards in ASEAN, will exacerbate the race to the bottom and lower the labour standards for workers in those countries and across the region.

The workshop started with an interactive activity in which participants calculated how long workers have to work in order to buy basic commodities in Cambodia, Thailand and Burma/Myanmar. These calculations were then compared to wages and purchasing power in investor countries such as Japan and the UK. In Burma/Myanmar, for example, workers earning minimum wage must work for more than 3 hours to earn enough to buy 1 kilo of rice, while in Japan, workers earning minimum wage only need to work for 20 minutes.

The workshop then heard from a panel of speakers. Ms. Vichuta Ly, Chair of the MMN Steering Committee, spoke about the stages of ASEAN economic integration and the opportunities and risks arising from increased foreign direct investment in Burma/Myanmar. Ms. Thet Thet Aung, from Generation 88, Burma/Myanmar, talked about the situation on the ground in Burma/Myanmar. She urged Burma/Myanmar and other ASEAN governments to ensure living wages for all workers including migrant workers. Ms. Thy Phalla, United Sisterhood Alliance, is a garment worker who is active in the Cambodian protests for a higher minimum wage. She spoke about the current challenges faced by garment workers and their unions in Cambodia and the violent crackdown on the protesters. Workers in Cambodia cannot survive on the current minimum wage and are calling on the government to increase it to $160.

Ms. Wint Thiri Aung, Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development, spoke about the failure of the current neoliberal development model, illustrated by the fact that the richest 300 people are currently wealthier than the poorest 3 billion people.  She also discussed the campaign for a living wage and the recent solidarity actions across the world for workers in Cambodia.

Ms. Wai Hnin Po, Foundation for Education and Development, highlighted the impact of the race to the bottom on migrant workers. Large scale investment projects cause more internal and cross-border migration, including forced migration. Migrant workers in the destination countries, despite their significant contribution to the economy, endure harsh working conditions and have the least protection in the workplace. She urged good business practices to be established to protect all workers, including migrant workers. Lastly, Mr Bent Gehrt, Worker Rights Consortium, presented a case study of a factory in the Dominican Republic where workers are paid a living wage, approximately double what workers in other factories in the country are paid. This is done without raising the cost of the garments manufactured for the consumer. This shows that it is possible for companies to pay workers a living wage: it is simply matter of will to do so.

Finally, acknowledging that all the workers at the bottom of ASEAN – local and migrant workers alike – are facing the same challenges, worker representatives and workshop participants came up with a series of recommendations. Participants call on ASEAN governments to immediately stop all forms of oppression against workers who exercise their right for freedom of expression, association and assembly, and their right to strike. Participants further call on governments to ensure that minimum wages are living wages and improve all working conditions for ASEAN countries. Participants also call on investors to abide by international labour standards, even when national standards fall below.

This workshop offered an excellent opportunity for Burmese workers and Cambodian workers to exchange their experiences and strategies to address common challenges. The workshop sent a strong message of solidarity to the Cambodian workers, particularly for those who continue to be detained.

Workshop participants

Solidarity with Cambodian workers