Myanmar’s construction union optimistic on organising possibilities

(Photo: Southeast Asia Globe)

BWFM, BWI’s affiliate in Myanmar, expressed optimism regarding its organising work among construction workers. The union said that it is maximising the organising opportunities opened by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the areas of collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), women membership in trade unions and participation in the drafting of government regulations on occupational health and safety. 

The union said that the COVID-19 pandemic left many construction workers in Myanmar unemployed and with unpaid wages. Those who still manage to be employed were exploited by their employers and trapped in complex construction supply chain labour disputes. The worsening labour situation, BWFM said, persuaded more and more workers to become members of trade unions. This enabled the union to educate workers on the positive effects of being organised, such as increased workers’ representation and benefits. 

The union said that it is planning to engage the Yangon regional government regarding workers’ CBAs due to the difficulties it faced in negotiating with the private sector. BWFM said that it gained sectoral-level collective bargaining rights and the possibility of collaborating for an occupational health and safety (OHS) system for the sector after it aligned itself with the Myanmar Construction Employers Federation (MCEF). 

Since last year, BWFM’s effort to organise the industry was hampered by the government’s continuing efforts to disenfranchise construction workers, many of whom are the city’s informal settlers. The government curtailed the unions’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining seeing these as unnecessary increases in social protection measures. The union also explained that the government doesn’t want the union to “interrupt” an industry it sees as a good place to promote different unethical and corrupt investment opportunities.

In Myanmar, restrictions by law limit BWFM’s ability to enter worksites and organise on the ground. The government said that existing union laws require executive members of construction unions to have continuous employment in one site. However, it argued that construction workers don’t have continuous service terms at one worksite due to the nature of construction work which tends to move workers constantly. 

As a response, BWFM innovatively shifted its organising work to areas where the workers reside. The union also utilised the International Labour Organisation’s supervisory mechanism of freedom of association, putting the spotlight on the government of Myanmar. BWFM heavily participated in tripartite meetings with the ILO special team after it lodged a formal complaint against the government’s curtailment of labour rights. 

In December 2019, BWFM participated in several other national tripartite meetings and stakeholder forums with different countries’ diplomatic missions in the country to expose the government’s refusal to recognise trade union rights. The union successfully brought enough international attention and support to their situation with labour officials pressed to begin opening up construction union registration and accept labour disputes previously rejected on the basis of complexity. 

 “In 2019, despite the smaller numbers of construction workers we gained as members, we showed them the benefits of being part of a union. We capacitated our new members with skills trainings. The union also helped in raising some of their wages from 12,000 Kyats to 15,000 Kyats. We are happy that for this year, we are optimistic that we can accomplish more on a larger scale and this is becoming possible now,” BWFM General Secretary Phyo Sandar said.

BWFM President Min Lat said that even if their union is still young, it has won significant victories for its members. “We are a young union. We are still learning different ways to fight for our members. For this reason, we see our gains in registering unions and organising more construction workers as major milestones. In the past, the government ignored us and dismissed our demands. But through our continuous grit and guidance of international partners, this changed. We have a reason to be more hopeful for the future,” Lat said.