The following is an interview with Stephen Campbell, who is an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. For the past 10 years, he’s been doing ethnographic research on working conditions and labor struggles among Myanmar migrant workers in Thailand and in Myanmar. His current research focuses on labor conditions and workers’ struggles at an industrial zone on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital.
In recent days we have seen images of numerous columns of workers on the streets defying the military coup. It could be seen as a “surprise,” but in recent years the Myanmarese working class conducted several strikes and struggles for their rights, against bosses’ harassment, for wages. What can you tell us about this process of worker strikes and struggles?
Actually, workers in Myanmar, especially garment factory workers, who are mostly young women in their late teens and early 20s, have been organizing continually over the past decade, and even before that. This dedicated organizing work has produced a strong network among industrial workers throughout the various industrial zones around Yangon.
Although there have been certain prominent moments of strike waves over the past decade, factory strikes in the industrial zones around Yangon have been recurring events. However, not all strikes are covered by the media. In fact, because of how often factory employers have violated labor law and paid below the minimum wage, strikes have in many cases been necessary for workers to obtain just the bare legal minimum in wages and working conditions. As a result, many workers have gained extensive experience in workplace organizing and in strikes. And out of these struggles, they have become quite militant and very capable at taking collective action.
Since these industrial zones are around Yangon, it is relatively easy for these workers to get downtown. Since the coup, garment factory workers have made clear in their protest chants and in interviews that they expect military rule to entail a restriction of their legal rights and a contraction of the space for worker organizing. If that happens, it will have a detrimental impact on their already-precarious livelihoods. In other words, workers’ collective involvement in the anti-coup protests and in the civil disobedience campaign is very much grounded in their immediate material concerns. So, for this reason, and given how organized and militant these workers already were, it is not a surprise that they have taken such a leading role in the anti-coup protests and in the civil disobedience campaign.
Why do you think the working class is at the forefront of the struggle against the coup?
As I mentioned, many factory workers employed in the industrial zones around Yangon were already very organized, but they were also in a very precarious situation. Conditions have been even worse since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which employers have used as a pretext to fire unionized workers, and police have sided with employers to break up strikes and arrest worker organizers. And with the coup, there has been clear recognition among workers that military rule will entail a contraction of the space for organizing, which would give employers even more power to suppress wages and violate labor laws.
One of the most prominent worker organizers in the anti-coup protests, Moe Sandar Myint, recently stated in an interview, “Workers are ready for this fight. We know that the situation will only deteriorate under military dictatorship, so we will fight as one, united, until the end.” So, for many workers, this struggle is not simply about Aung San Suu Kyi and [her party] the National League for Democracy (NLD). It is a struggle grounded in their immediate material concerns, and in many ways it points beyond a simple return of the NLD to government, since the situation for workers under the NLD was also very precarious and very restrictive.
Myanmar is one of the fastest-growing countries in the region. Many multinational enterprises invested in the country. What were the consequences of these economic transformations on the social structure of Myanmar? How did this “new” working class emerge? And what are the living and working conditions of the working class in Myanmar?
Before 2011, many Western apparel brands were unwilling to source their supplies from Myanmar because of the stigma associated with the very illiberal labor practices under military rule. But after the elections in 2010 and a shift to quasi-civilian rule at the start of 2011, the dominant narrative has been that the country is undergoing a “transition” to liberal democracy. And with the introduction of new labor laws in 2011 and 2012, Western apparel brands were no longer stigmatized for sourcing from Myanmar. Plus, Myanmar has one of the lowest wage rates in Asia.
At the same time, under the so-called political transition and during the preceding years of military rule, large numbers of rural dwellers have been pushed out of rural areas. This has been due to increased debt and loss of agricultural land, which in many cases was simply taken by military officials or their business cronies. And in 2008, there was a major cyclone in the delta.
All this led to a large migration of rural residents to the industrial zones around Yangon. Since real estate speculation and large-scale urban migration drove up the cost of housing, many of these new urban residents moved into informal squatter settlements. At present, there are hundreds of thousands of people living in squatter settlements on the outskirts of Yangon. In some cases, former rural dwellers migrated to Thailand or other countries in the region in search of employment.
As this was happening, especially over the past decade, foreign development agencies and consultants in Myanmar have argued that this movement from rural to urban areas is the best thing to happen because urban waged employment is ostensibly more “productive” than agricultural livelihoods. The effect, however, has been a growing population of migrants to the city who are in a very precarious situation with no effective social safety net. Many factories, especially those producing for the domestic market, do not pay the minimum wages. And even garment factories producing for exports often violate labor protection laws.
The garment industry is one of the most important economic sectors for Myanmarese exports. Many struggles took place in the garment industry where 90 percent of workers are women. What is the role of women in striking and organizing the working class in the country?
Garment, textile, footwear, and accessory factories producing for export, which are located in the various industrial zones around Yangon, employed about 1 million people (at least before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic) and restrict hiring almost exclusively to young women in their late teens to early 20s. Even women in their mid-20s can find it difficult to get employment in these factories. One consequence of this arrangement is that these women are often the only person in their household with relatively stable waged employment. So their families often depend, at least in part, on these women’s wages.
It is often said, in Myanmar and other countries with large garment sectors, that such factories prefer to hire young women because they are perceived as less likely to organize, strike, or otherwise cause problems for the employer. This is, however, evidently not the case. In fact, since many of these young women are supporting their families, they have added motivation to organize collectively to obtain higher wages. Under these conditions, there have been many impressive women organizers who have developed their organizing skills, leadership, and confidence through direct participation in workplace organizing.
For a long time under the military regime, it was impossible for workers to organize legally. But since 2011 workers took advantage of the regime’s opening to create new trade unions, confederations, and so on. And sometimes, the strikes and claims of the workers are very “radical.” For instance, during the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis, they fought to preserve jobs and to protect union representatives who were fired, and they refused to accept severance payments. How can you explain this confidence? Are there are political or ideological currents, or historical political movements, that are influencing the working movement today? If so, which ones?
Although it wasn’t legally possible for workers to establish trade unions under military rule, there were many cases of informal worker organizing — at least, that is what older workers who were employed before 2010 have told me. In 2011 and 2012, the new quasi-civilian government introduced new labor laws that allowed workers to form legal trade unions and bargain collectively. Since then, however, most workplaces have remained in violation of various laws and have often paid workers below the legal minimum wage. At the same time, many workers have found government industrial relations officials to be biased toward employers or outright corrupt. And police have often sided with employers to break up strikes and arrest strike leaders.
Consequently, many workers have seen clearly that they cannot depend on existing labor law and government institutions to address their immediate livelihood concerns. So, when organizers in a workplace start reaching out to their fellow workers, many people have been eager to take part in collective action.
At same time there is also a rich tradition of opposition in Myanmar. Even before the return to quasi-civilian rule in 2011, many workers pursued informal collective struggles in their workplace. It is also relevant to point out that Myanmar has a rich leftist tradition. Although the Communist Party of Burma effectively collapsed over three decades ago (at the same time that the so-called socialist period ended), many labor activists are well versed in leftist thought and in their country’s leftist history. And some younger radical students have over the past decade reached out to factory workers and supported libraries for workers with leftist literature, or have started journals for factory workers with leftist themes.
So, explicitly leftist currents are present among factory workers. Nevertheless, for most workers their “radical” politics — such as their militant willingness to strike or to confront the police — has emerged out of their own struggles over the past decade.
It seems that bosses, the state, governments (assisted by international organizations like ILO) try to impose laws that limit the strikes, but also they use police and judiciary repression against striking workers. What can you tell us about the responses of state and bosses to workers activism?
Well, I have said that even under military rule, before the introduction of new labor laws in 2011 and 2012, there had been workplace organizing and strikes by workers. Then, with the shift to quasi-civilian rule after the 2010 elections, the ILO helped the new government draft these news labor laws. At the time, an ILO adviser explained that the new laws aimed to “ward off strikes” by channeling workers’ grievances into institutional mechanisms. But as many workers found out, the new mechanisms were often biased toward employers, or officials were simply corrupt.
As a result, many workers have chosen to strike rather than, or before, filing complaints about labor law violations with government mediators. And since police also commonly side with employers, workers who have gone on strike have faced arrest and police violence. And this was this situation under the “liberal” NLD government. So, with the military coup, many workers have expressed concerns that space for organizing will contract even further.
For now, it seems that Myanmar’s workers are struggling against the coup, and Suu Kyi seems very popular among Myanmarese people. But under NLD governments the exploitation and repression against the working class was very harsh. From a working-class point of view, it seems that the “democratic liberal” project is not really an alternative that can improve living and working conditions of workers, nor guarantee them political, national (ethnic minorities), and economic and trade union rights. It means that workers must go beyond the political goals of Suu Kyi and her party. What can you say about political class independence for workers in Myanmar in this moment of struggle against the military coup?
Yes, on the one hand, over the past decade under quasi-civilian rule, there has been relatively more space for workers to organize. They have been able to form legal unions and many strikes have been successful. At the same time, as I have mentioned, workers continued to confront barriers to achieving even the bare legal minimum in wages and working conditions. Now, as we can see in the protests, images of Aung San Suu Kyi and calls for her release have been very prominent. But people have more broadly voiced a rejection of military rule. And many protesters are calling for the abolition of the military-drafted 2008 constitution, which enshrined the military’s role in government, as well as for a truly federal democratic arrangement, which would go some way toward addressing the long-standing grievances of ethnic minorities against the central government’s domination.
So, in a way, the scale and momentum of the protests and of the civil disobedience campaign, which is basically a general strike, have opened space to think about more far-reaching political goals. And to the extent that this movement is successful, much credit is due to workers who were at the forefront at the start of protests shortly after the coup. And whatever happens from this point forward, these workers have shown that they are an important political force in themselves and not simply a vote-bank for the NLD.
Do you think the situation in Myanmar can influence the workers movement in the other countries of Southeast Asia?
Already, the civil disobedience campaign in Myanmar has motivated a resurgence in the pro-democracy protest movement in neighboring Thailand. And Myanmar has been asked to join the Milk Tea Alliance, which is a loose online coalition of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, and Myanmar. Of course, the people involved in these movements are often workers in one way or another. But it is not yet clear to me whether the actions of workers in Myanmar will motivate people in other regional countries to voice an explicitly working-class politics or to adopt the general strike as a tactic of struggle toward a democratic pro-worker political arrangement.