MMN Bottom of ASEAN project consultation meeting, Yangon, Burma/Myanmar

On 19 March, MMN held a project consultation meeting on the Bottom of ASEAN project with MMN project partners and participants from Cambodian labour unions and Burmese CSOs. This meeting was an opportunity for workers, union leaders and civil society representatives to discuss the similar problems faced by workers in Cambodia and Burma/Myanmar, and the strategies that can be developed to address this.

The main objectives of the consultation meeting were to jointly analyse issues related to exploitation in the global supply chain and a possible impact on labour and migration of rushed investment into countries with limited labour protection mechanisms, including Burma, Cambodia and Laos; to develop an initial set of recommendations to mitigate negative impacts and bring positive change as a result of the latest inward investment trends in the Mekong countries; and to develop the capacity of migrant and labour advocates from Mekong countries to monitor and analyse the issues of exploitation in the supply chain and to promote workers’ rights.

The following speakers made presentations at the meeting. From MMN, Ms Tineke Baird presented the secondary research carried out by MMN into investment trends in Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, and the effect this is having on labour standards, and Ms Hkun Sa Mun Htoi, Information and Advocacy Officer, presented highlights from the Burma/Myanmar CSO consultation meeting which MMN organised in October 2013. Mr Bent Gehrt, Worker Rights Consortium, spoke about supply chains, rushed investment and its possible implications for Burma/Myanmar and the wider region. This was followed by an open discussion in which participants discussed the similarities between the issues facing workers in Burma and in Cambodia.

Speakers from Burma and Cambodia then discussed the impact of the increased flow of foreign direct investment (FDI) on labour and challenges facing workers in Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia as experienced on the ground. Ms Thet Thet Aung, and Ms Mar Mar Oo, Generation 88, Burma/Myanmar, spoke of increased tensions between employers and workers in Burma. Workers in Burma want FDI in Burma so they can have more job opportunities, but they are worried the employer will not respect the rights of labourers and will not pay enough wages, problems that are already faced by many workers. They are also worried that skilled workers from other countries will come to Burma to work, which may lead to loss of opportunities for local people.  Ms Thy Phalla, and Ms Sovatha Neang, United Sisterhood Alliance, Cambodia, spoke of the background to the recent strikes in Cambodia which were violently repressed by the military in January 2014, killing 5 people and injuring many more. 23 people were arrested and imprisoned and many people have gone missing. Cambodian workers are demanding minimum wage be raised to $160 as they cannot cover their basic needs with the current minimum wage. The government’s response to the strikes has shown that its primary concern is to protect the investors, rather than listening to the demands of the workers. The government may be also worried some investors will move to another country like Burma.

Throughout the day, participants actively exchanged their views on the difficulties the workers face as well as strategies to challenge these, by discussing the positive and negative impacts of investment in the region and what could be done to encourage/prevent this. Outcomes of this discussion included important strategies, including incorporating labour standards into investment laws, raising workers’ knowledge of their rights, consumer awareness, networking between supplier and consumer countries, fostering respect between investors and workers, and most importantly, solidarity between workers in the region.