12/06/2021, 18.09
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‘In a year we can bring down the junta,’ says labour leader Khaing Zar Aung

by Alessandra De Poli

She began working at 16 in a garment factory making clothing for big international labels. In 2015, she fought for a minimum wage that was five times the current rate. She is now in exile in Germany, but her fight for democracy and workers’ rights continues. She will be in Rome tomorrow for a meeting with Italian trade unions.

Berlin (AsiaNews) – “It is not work, it is slavery,” says Khaing Zar Aung, 37, speaking about workers’ conditions in Myanmar. “After the coup, all our progress was wiped out, we are back to the working conditions of 2000,” she adds.

The labour leader was 16 when she first went to work in a garment factory to support her family.

Twenty years ago, the former Burma was ruled by a military dictatorship and had no trade unions, still far from the 2010 election, which, at least for a while, led to democracy and a civilian government.

“I used to get up at 6.15 am to be in the factory at 7.30,” she told AsiaNews. “I worked non-stop until 10 pm, 7 days a week. We had perhaps one day off a month after getting paid,” which amounted to “about 10 US dollar a month”.  

She made clothes for major international clothing labels. After high school she went to university, where she studied economics, but never stopped working.

Originally from Kyauktan, a town just south of Yangon, she now is the president of the Industrial Worker’s Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) and a member of the executive committee of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM).

Tomorrow at 5 pm she will be at Rome City Hall for a meeting with Italian authorities and labour leaders for an event organized by the Italia Burma Insieme (Italy-Burma Together) Association.

She now lives in Germany, where she moved to pursue a Master's Degree in Labour Policies and Globalisation. “But I can't study, even from here I have to fight for my country,” she explains.

An arrest warrant hangs over her and her passport has been declared void. It was issued by the military junta that seized power on 1 February and overthrew the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to four years in prison on the first of 11 indictments pending against her.

After graduating from school, Khaing Zar Aung found employment with the railway, where she hoped working conditions would be better. “I wanted to rise in rank but it was only possible through corruption.”

Embittered, she went to Thailand, where she earned much more for the same job she did in Myanmar. “I worked from 8 am to 5 pm and I was getting between 150 US dollar and 180 US dollar a month. How could wages be so different? What I did was simply cross the river that separates the two countries.”  

This is where she met the labour movement. A friend took her to a training class where workers' rights were discussed. At the event, which was organised by the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB), she learnt how Myanmar’s military regime kept people in poverty.

She was jailed twice for helping migrant workers at the border, then in 2012 she was allowed, together with other migrant workers and trade unionists, to return to Myanmar "but only as individuals, not as an organisation”. She eventually set up the latter, which is how the CTUM was created.

“Our goal was to get a minimum wage for workers, even though the real value was still very low because of inflation. In 2015 we managed to get a 3.5 dollar per day minimum with one day off a week, that is five times more than the basic salary paid at that time.”

With the military coup, all the progress made so far was wiped out. “Those who still have jobs get paid less than 2 US dollar a day, have no days off and no social safety net, even if in theory they pay for it,” the union leader laments.

"Almost 400,000 people who worked in the garment sector have lost their jobs, one million in the construction sector, not to mention tourism and related sectors,” she adds.

“Yesterday there was a peaceful strike and the junta killed five people for no reason. This is not a violation of workers' rights; this is a violation of human rights.”

Still, Khaing Zar Aung is hopeful about the future. “In a year we can bring down the junta," she says with conviction.

The trade union leader is currently trying to get international companies to stop doing business in Myanmar. She has asked the European Union to implement comprehensive economic sanctions to stop the flow of cash into the regime’s coffers.

In Myanmar, “people have stopped paying taxes. Companies that want to continue working in Myanmar must share the profits with the military, but this way they prop up the dictatorship and repression.”

Is she afraid that sanctions could worsen the conditions of workers? “It cannot get any worse for the people of Myanmar than it is now,” is Khaing Zar Aung’s answer.

“The only way to restore democracy in Myanmar is to support the civilian National Unity Government, work with the civil disobedience movement that is fighting inside the country, and increase international pressure on the army. Paired with people's resistance, we could bring down the military junta".

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