U Maung Maung, general secretary of the Federal Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB), visited the AFL-CIO last week to give some perspective on the draft Labor Organizations Law the Burmese government has introduced. The International Labor Organization (ILO) will decide in November whether to send a Commission of Inquiry to the country, a move Burma would like to avoid.
Although the law is a step in the right direction, U Maung Maung pointed out several holes in its reach, foundation and application and says it lacks adequate procedures for protecting collective bargaining or freedom of association. The announcement of changes in the labor law was accompanied by the release of 15 activists in October, all of whom were held on charges of “affecting the morality or conduct of the public or a group of people in a way that would undermine the security of the Union or the restoration of law and order.” However, 22 activists are still being held for this same reason, with sentences reaching up to 28 years.
He was realistically optimistic about the continuing fight for the freedom of association and the freedom to organize in Burma. Although he acknowledged the tricky political reasons for a shift in the law, ultimately he believes the support of international organizations and the use of sanctions—continued pressure on the government—is effectively bringing about positive change in Burma. Whether the passage of the Labor Organizations Law is a real commitment to freedom of association, or just another façade, remains to be seen. But the draft Labor Organizations Law provides for the registration of unions in Burma for the first time in 39 years. In fact, on Oct. 25, the Agriculture and Farmers Federation of Myanmar sent in their registration, and others are soon to follow. U Maung Maung thanked the AFL-CIO, the ITUC and our affiliated unions for their support and commented:
In 1988 we were on the streets…while we stopped everything, we did not know how to move forward. Now we have real people, trained, and registered, to move forward using international standards.