Friday, August 18, 2017

Unions demand prison time for bosses who flout law

Bosses who flout labour laws should be jailed, workers’ representatives say. They want the incoming NLD government to strengthen laws that now allow rogue employers to walk away with a fine.

Labour activist Ko Phyoe Wai Aung, head of the union at Great Well One footwear factory, speaks at a press conference in Yangon on January 5. ( Zaw Zaw Htwe / The Myanmar Times)Labour activist Ko Phyoe Wai Aung, head of the union at Great Well One footwear factory, speaks at a press conference in Yangon on January 5. ( Zaw Zaw Htwe / The Myanmar Times)

Leaders of factory unions affiliated with the Myanmar Labour Unions Network called the January 5 press conference following a number of cases in which employers had refused to rehire sacked workers, despite an order from the conciliation committee dealing with the dispute. The maximum fine that can be imposed for this infraction is K1 million, which the unions said was an insufficient deterrent. They said the prospect of prison in the Labour Dispute Settlement Law would force employers to respect the spirit of the law.

Other demands included penalties for employers who fire workers without reference to the conciliation committee set up to negotiate disputes or impose rules without the agreement of the workers, and the enforcement of laws that protect the rights of migrants and other workers.

A demonstration of about 2000 workers in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar township backed up the demand.

Ko Aung Soe Min, union chair at the San Kaung bag factory in Hlaing Tharyar township, told journalists that employers were flouting rulings laid down by dispute arbitration councils and firing labour leaders for protecting workers’ rights.

“In one dispute, the central arbitration council ruled that the fired workers should be re-employed with compensation. But although the employer admitted being at fault and accepted a fine, he refused to rehire the workers. The workers lost both their rights and their jobs,” he said.

The law should allow employers in violation to be jailed for a year, he said.

Ko Hein Zaw Nyein, union secretary at the Great Well One footwear factory, said he had also been dismissed. “The [arbitration council] ruled that I and our union chair should be rehired, but the factory boss didn’t obey the ruling. He accepted only the court fine. We got nothing. We lost our jobs even though the arbitration council found that we were innocent. We want the next government to change the law to allow for the prison penalty.”

Workers’ representatives said the aim of unions was to create a better working environment for employers and employees alike, to the benefit of both sides, but most employers regarded unions as destructive.

Asked on January 4 about breaches of labour law by employers, Myanmar Garment Manufacturers’ Association vice chair U Aung Win told The Myanmar Times that factory owners wanted to hire productive workers and to avoid those who were not. He said the introduction last September of the K3600 daily minimum wage had led to a fall in production “because of a change in workers’ mindset”.

Previous campaigns to amend the dispute settlement law, which was enacted in March 2012, have had mixed results. In September 2014, the Pyi-daungsu Hluttaw increased the maximum fine for violations to K1 million, but ignored requests not only from labour leaders but also President U Thein Sein and members of his cabinet to insert jail terms into the law. Parliamentarians voted against the proposal on the grounds that it could negatively impact foreign investment.

But legal expert U Maung Maung Win, an employer representative on the central arbitration council, said he supported union demands to add a prison option to the law.

“We don’t want anyone to go to prison. We just want employers to rehire the workers they fired,” he said, adding that some workers were awarded up to K5 million compensation.

“In these cases, a K1 million fine is not enough of a disincentive for an employer willing to disobey the council’s ruling. The law should provide for at least a one-year prison penalty.”

About 15 cases are pending over the next three months of employers facing fines from township labour departments for disobeying central arbitration council rulings.