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Apparel groups concerned at Myanmar labour law reforms

Business groups representing international garment, footwear, and travel goods buyers have written to the government of Myanmar to express their increasing concern over several worker rights issues in the country.

They say they are particularly troubled by ongoing labour law reforms, including “serious and repeated violations of the fundamental rights to freely associate, to organise, and to bargain collectively in both law and in practice in Myanmar.”

The Southeast Asian country is one of the fastest-growing garment, footwear, and travel goods suppliers in the world, exporting $5.2bn of these products last year and employing hundreds of thousands of workers.

But the letter to state counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says that despite advances to construct a democratic legal framework and implementing consistent rule of law, buyers “are nonetheless deeply troubled by recent amendments and actions which can misalign, confuse, and even derail some of this progress.”
The groups are especially concerned with the implementation of, and proposed reforms to, the Labor Organizations Law (LOL) of 2011 and the Settlement of Labor Disputes Law (SLDL) of 2012, particularly on the issue of freedom of association

The groups – the American Apparel & Footwear Association, Fair Labor Association, Initiative for Compliance and Sustainability, and Social Accountability International – are especially concerned with the implementation of, and proposed reforms to, the Labor Organizations Law (LOL) of 2011 and the Settlement of Labor Disputes Law (SLDL) of 2012, particularly on the issue of freedom of association.

“Our association members are concerned that worker’s rights to freely associate as union members are not being fully respected,” they write. “Our members have also noted unduly burdensome approval processes for trade union registrations and industrial actions, especially the requirement of documents, procedures, and approvals which are nowhere mentioned in law.

“We understand that the Assembly of the Union recently passed amendments to the SLDL and is considering several amendments to the LOL. However, these amendments, both adopted and proposed, not only fail to address the concerns raised by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and other key stakeholders, but they would make the laws worse in many respects.”

They include:

Requiring trade unions to re-register every two years, which would grant the government significant leverage over unions to refrain from the full exercise of their rights lest their re-registration application be denied (LOL);
Placing a limit of 30 days on strikes, after which workers would be required to return to work (LOL);
Imposing imprisonment and significant fines on striking workers (up to 104 days of wages at the minimum wage rate), including those who engage in a strike which is technically illegal under the laws of Myanmar, but which are fully consistent with their rights under ILO Conventions (LOL);
Failing to establish a meaningful legal framework for collective bargaining (SLDL); and
Allowing employers to bargain collective agreements with non-union bargaining councils, against the clear advice of the ILO (SLDL).

“While we are hopeful that the reforms approved to the SLDL will improve the labour dispute settlement process, it remains unclear whether the reforms will result in efficient, proper, and enforceable judgements, that workers will have access to an adequate remedy (including reinstatement), and whether the increased penalties will be enough to dissuade violations of the law.

“We urge your government to work with the ILO and other stakeholders to ensure that the labour law reforms, and implementation of those reforms, meet both international law and best practices.

“We also urge the Government of Myanmar to respect freedom of association and other internationally-protected labor rights, and refrain from continued measures to deny these rights in practice.”
The letter sets out in more detail some of the concerns relating to proposed reforms to the Labor Organizations Law (LOL) of 2011 and the Settlement of Labor Disputes Law (SLDL) of 2012. These are outlined below:

Registration
The ILO Committee on the Application of Standards has urged the government to “ensure that the registration of workers’ and employers’ organisations is not subject to unreasonable requirements to guarantee that the right to join or establish organisations of their own choosing is not hindered in practice” and “ensure that applications for union registration are acted upon expeditiously and are not denied unless they fail to meet clear and objective criteria set forth in the law.”

The trade union registration process has not improved and appears to be getting worse. During the tripartite discussion, trade unions explained that registrar officials had denied numerous completed applications for reasons found nowhere in the law or rules.

These reasons included: 1) a requirement that all executive committee members submit their curriculum vitae; 2) a requirement that all union members submit photocopies of ID cards (extremely onerous since many workers are unable to obtain government-issued IDs); 3) a requirement that the union obtain a letter from the employer acknowledging that the union has informed management of its intent to register (which essentially gives employers the ability to veto the union’s registration by withholding the letter); and 4) a requirement that the union obtain signatures from at least 10 percent of the workforce – and that these be from non-union members. These requirements significantly impede the exercise of freedom of association.

Unions report that the registration process can extend for several months, and in many cases end in rejection. The authorities continue to use arbitrary reasons to reject applications, the most recent being objections over the dues rate indicated in the union’s constitution. In other cases, officials have accused unions – without evidence – of forging the signatures of members and requiring the union to submit the application again with new signatures. This gives the impression that the registrar is proactively seeking to prohibit the registration of new unions.

Anti-union retaliation
Trade union leaders and activists are routinely dismissed for engaging in legal union activity, such as organising workers into a union, raising complaints, and seeking negotiations with management. The dispute settlement procedures in place fail to provide a remedy for affected workers and fail to sanction employers for any illegal behaviour.

The arbitration body and arbitration council generally apply the law poorly, and when they do so correctly, employers often refuse to respect these awards. Recently a supplier to a major footwear brand shut down the factory rather than comply with a binding arbitration decision to reinstate a union leader. The supplier subsequently shifted production to a second non-unionised factory in Yangon.

Civil liberties
The Committee on the Application of Standards urged the government to, “ensure that workers are able to carry out their trade union activities without threat of violence or other violations of their civil liberties by police or private security.” The Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law enacted in 2012 has been used extensively to detain peaceful protesters speaking out on matters of public interest, including workers. In February 2019, several trade union leaders were arrested in Mandalay under this law for having peacefully protested the labour law reform process and the failure of the government to protect workers from anti-union discrimination.

The authorities have claimed that only residents of Mandalay may protest there, which is an unjustifiable limitation on the right to peacefully assembly. Since then, the accused have had to travel to Mandalay numerous times to attend multiple pro forma court hearings, which has caused them to lose work time and incur significant expenses.

Separately, the European Union last October said it was considering steps to remove Myanmar’s duty-free Everything But Arms preferential trade access over the alleged ethnic cleansing of Rohingya refugees during a 2017 military campaign – a move that creates political uncertainty and potential risks and reputational issues for firms sourcing garments from Myanmar.

This prompted the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) to launch a four-point guide aimed at helping brands and retailers to source responsibly from the country.

Source: Just-Style

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