In previous years on May 1, workers across Myanmar would rally and march in solidarity for workers’ rights and justice. But this May Day the streets will be quiet, as no marches are allowed with Covid-19 lockdowns and curfews in place.
Most factories in Myanmar closed on April 13 for the annual water festival celebrations. The government then ordered they remain closed until April 30 while Covid-19 related inspections were conducted. More than 500 factories in Yangon and Mandalay have now been inspected and are slowly resuming operations.
In the meantime, at least 60,000 workers have lost their jobs as factories shut down amid a global slowdown in supply chain orders caused by the pandemic. Many affected workers toil in the garments sector, where unions in Myanmar have some of the strongest representation. But as factories close, concerns are growing that some employers will use the pandemic as an excuse to attack and dismantle unions.
A union member from one factory told Human Rights Watch that factory shutdowns like these are tactics to fire union members. “Although my factory paid us our benefits and wages, they fired all the union members first,” she said.
More than half a million people live and work in the industrial zones on Yangon’s outskirts. Many have moved from rural areas to find these jobs. They live precariously on empty lots as squatters, or packed into dormitory-style accommodations in quarters shared with multi-generational families and friends.
May Day should prompt the Myanmar government to redouble efforts to support and assist these factory workers. A good way to proceed is for local authorities to review the layoffs and retrenchments during the lockdown, to minimize job loss and where inevitable, ensure layoffs are nondiscriminatory. Now is not the time to abandon workers or target union organizers.