A Taiwanese shoe factory in Myanmar that produces global brands including Adidas has refused to reinstate 26 people fired after they led a strike by hundreds of workers calling for an increase of less than a U.S. dollar in daily wages, RFA Burmese has learned.
More than 2,000 employees of the Yangon-based factory owned by Myanmar Pou Chen Co. held a three-day strike beginning on Oct. 25, demanding that their wages be raised to 8,000 kyats (about U.S.$2.50) per day from the 4,800 kyats (about U.S.$1.60) per day they were granted by a federal minimum wage increase four years ago.
At the end of the strike, factory management not only rejected the demands of the workers, but fired the 26 people who had organized the strike for taking an “unexcused absence.” Management later offered a compensation of three-months’ salary to the fired workers, who rejected the deal, saying they only want to be reinstated.
On Dec. 1, Myanmar Pou Chen Co. deposited the monthly salary for October together with 10-days wages it referred to as “severance pay” in the bank accounts of the fired workers. The workers told RFA they plan to return the payment.
“We are not the enemies”
San Yu Hlaing, 22, told RFA that she and the other 25 workers fired by the factory want their jobs back and salary for the month of November.
“We are not the enemies of the factory. Our families can only make ends meet because of these factories,” she said. “That’s why we don’t want to clash with the factory any further.”
“We want to tell the employers of the factory that we would like to peacefully come back and negotiate for our demands constructively,” she said. “We have asked to be reinstated back to where Adidas brands are produced and also to give our salaries for the month of November but the factory employers have not done anything to meet our demands.”
Chit Ko Ko, who was also fired by the factory, told RFA that workers only asked for an increase in pay because their current wages are inadequate to meet the rising prices of basic commodities.
She said that a kilogram of rice currently costs as much as 4,000 kyats, while a viss (1.63 kilograms) of cooking oil or a visit to the doctor can cost up to 8,000 kyats.
“The wages that the factory pays us does not cover our basic cost of living,” she said.
“It hasn’t risen with inflation. That’s why we are only demanding enough to cover those costs. Additionally, there is a law requiring wage adjustments every two years.”
Article 5(h) of Myanmar’s Minimum Wage Law requires the government to fix and officially announce the country’s minimum wage rate at least once every two years.
After the law was enacted in 2013, authorities set a minimum wage of 3,600 kyats for an eight-hour workday and later increased it to 4,800 kyats in January 2018. However, the wage was never increased in 2020 and there has been no mention of a hike since Myanmar’s military seized power in a February 2021 coup.
While Myanmar Pou Chen Co. and its employees held negotiations at the Shwepyithar township office of the Department of Labor on Nov. 22, 25 and Dec. 8, workers told RFA that the two sides failed to come to an agreement because factory management refused to comply with worker demands and the labor office directed them to take the matter to court.
Workers said that the 7,000 people employed by the factory are required to produce around 36,000 pairs of shoes a day and don’t even have enough time to go to the bathroom if they hope to make their quota.
Phyo Thida Win, president of the Myanmar Pou Chen factory workers’ union, said that in 2018, the factory required workers to produce 120 pairs of shoes every hour, but while that number has since increased to 220 pairs of shoes, wages have remained stagnant. Meanwhile, the minimum cost of a pair of Adidas shoes is more than an entire month of wages for the worker who produces it, she said.
“Their production targets have only increased,” she said. “That’s why we have asked for a pay increase in accordance with their rising demands.”
Phyo Thida Win noted that Myanmar Pou Chen Co. only offers its employees a 10,000-kyat bonus if they don’t take leave during a work year, when other factories pay as much as 30,000 kyats.
Attempts by RFA to reach Myanmar Pou Chen Co. and Adidas USA’s corporate office have gone unanswered.
Resolution ‘unlikely’ amid political crisis
A source who is helping the workers fight for a wage increase and asked to be identified as Lin Lin, citing fear of reprisal, told RFA that a fair solution to the dispute is unlikely given Myanmar’s ongoing political crisis.
“In this political situation, if the workers use legal means to try to resolve this matter, I don’t think they will win,” he said.
“But we will be able to prove that justice cannot be served under military rule. We will also prove that the Pou Chen company does not operate ethically in dealing with its workers’ demands.”
Lin Lin said that worker representatives have informed the International Labor Organization and Adidas about the situation at the factory. He said Adidas replied that it is negotiating with the factory to provide financial support to the workers while it investigates their claims.
RFA contacted the junta’s Department of Labor officer for Shwepyithar township regarding the dismissal of the workers without a fair settlement, who said that he was “not in a position to answer.”
Translated by Myo Min Aung. Written in English by Josh Lipes. Edited by Malcolm Foster.