Burma’s longest-running strike in recent years has taken a new turn, as about half of the 1,800 workers who walked off the job at the Tai Yi footwear factory in Rangoon’s Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone (3) on Feb. 6 announced on Tuesday that they plan to form a new union to press for their demands.
The strike, which began with a dispute over unpaid wages for an unofficial holiday to mark the Chinese New Year, has evolved into the largest display of labor unrest in Burma since the country’s government introduced new labor laws last year.
In a press statement released on Tuesday, the workers said that they will establish a new union in accordance with the Labor Organizations Law of Oct. 11, 2011, which legalized unions in Burma for the first time in decades.
They said the union was necessary to help resolve the current crisis, which has dragged on for more than three weeks despite several rounds of negotiations and mediation from government officials.
“We have been raising the workers’ awareness of their rights and discussing the idea of forming a union for workers at this industrial zone since the start of the month,” said labor activist Ko Than, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.
The decision to form a union had already been made public at a press conference on Monday, when the workers said that they had begun collecting the signatures of workers who wanted to join.
More than half of the 1,800 workers at the Tai Yi factory have decided to remain on strike despite a deal reached last week that persuaded many of the company’s employees to return to work.
Under that agreement, the company said it would raise hourly wages from 75 kyat to 100 kyat (US $0.09 to $0.12), while monthly bonuses would increase from 6,000 kyat to 7,000 kyat ($7.50 to $8.50). The company also promised to give workers the day off on Sundays and not force them to work long overtime hours.
This, however, fell far short of the 17 key demands originally made by the workers, which included a doubling of hourly wages and a bonus increase to 8,000 kyat, as well as substantial improvements in working conditions.
According to the striking workers, they have also submitted their case to the Trade Dispute Committee’s arbitration court with the assistance of a group of lawyers, including Pho Phyu, a prominent activist lawyer who has been providing legal advice since the strike began.
Meanwhile, Ko Than said that Tai Yi had hired about 300 new employees to replace some of the workers who remain on strike.