Officials from Myanmar’s garment trade association have said they respect the right of workers to strike, but cautioned that those taking part in demonstrations need to abide by the law when protesting or face legal action.
The comments come just weeks after authorities broke up wage strikes at factories outside Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, at the urging of South Korean officials and as a garment sector delegation from the European Union is visiting the country.
“Asking for the raise in salary is their [workers’] right, but this should be within the frame of the law,” Khine Khine Nwe, general secretary of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, said Tuesday.
While Myanmar is hoping that its low labor costs will draw more Western firms to its factories, the violent crackdown highlighted the industry’s volatility as it struggles to balance demands of workers with those of factory owners.
On March 4, 14 striking workers were arrested by baton-wielding police after clashes. Those arrested face two-and-a-half years in prison for violating the country’s Rioting Act, according to state-controlled media. The arrests came after some striking workers had failed to reach an agreement with factory owners since demonstrations began in late January.
Following the arrests, local media outlets in South Korea and Myanmar reported that officials from South Korea had urged the Myanmar government to take action against the strikers.
The South Korean Embassy in Yangon declined to comment when contacted on March 23. But Wongyoung Choi, commercial attaché at the South Korean embassy in Yangon, told English-language daily The Myanmar Times on March 19 that diplomats acted after the manager of a South Korean factory was detained by striking workers at the Costec factory. Workers have denied these claims.
South Korea and Japan are two of the largest investors in Myanmar’s garment sector. South Korea urged Cambodia to take action against striking garment workers in 2014.
When asked, two senior MGMA officials speaking to the media on March 24 did not directly address the South Korean role in the ending of the protests. They said instead that they understood the concerns of employers and workers and were focused on strengthening future dialogue between the two parties.
According to MGMA officials, 16 European companies are taking part in the trip to Myanmar. H&M, which sources from Myanmar, as well Esprit and Lindex, were the only companies that were publicly identified on the tour.
Myanmar’s garment sector is trying to build on the significant growth it experienced last year. Total garment sector export revenues for 2014 were estimated to have reached around $1.5 billion, up around $300 million from 2013.
Exports to the EU were estimated at $400 million, more than doubling from 2013. The MGMA has forecasted that exports to the EU will overtake those of South Korea and Japan in 2015.