Myanmar factory workers demand plant closure as COVID-19 fears mount


Nearly 1,500 garment workers from four factories in the Dagon Seikkan Township Industrial Zone in the Yangon region staged a demonstration on Friday, to demand that owners temporarily close down the plants during the pandemic and give them paid leave, labour union leaders said.

Scores of factories closed down in the country amid shortages of raw materials, causing more than 20,000 workers to lose their jobs. As a preventive measure, some workers are asking factory owners to temporary shutter operations.

As business dries up and factories shut their doors because of the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus, workers across Southeast Asia are feeling the economic pain due to job loss with minimal welfare safety nets to land on in their developing economies.

Zar Zar Tun, a labour union leader at the Blue Diamond handbag factory, where the demonstration began in the morning, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that workers fear that could become infected with the virus if they continuing working, while lockdown restrictions are in place in other areas to prevent the pathogen’s spread.

“We are now demanding to negotiate with the boss,” she said. “We are appealing to him to shut down the factory for the entire month of April and pay wages and salaries for this month. We are protesting to demand our rights that are guaranteed by law. We are being denied these rights,” he said.

Zar Zar Tun said she and other labour union leaders would negotiate with the owners of the plants, but that workers will continue demonstrating in the meantime.

Thet Htar Swe, a leader from the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma, told RFA that her organization will assist the roughly 1,500 workers from the four factories in getting their demands met.

“Their demands are to temporarily shut down all four factories during April while paying wages and salaries to workers for the whole month and give them other rights guaranteed by law,” she said. “Our federation stands with the protesting workers and will help them succeed in securing their rights.”

As of Friday, Myanmar’s health ministry reported 20 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and one death.

Despite government-ordered 14-day quarantines for Myanmar and foreign nationals who are returning to the country and those suspected of COVID-19 infections, health volunteers in upper Myanmar — the central and northern parts of the country — have reported several cases of people evading the isolation requirement and other regional restrictions.

On Friday, the Yangon government urged people to stay home during the Thingyan Buddhist New Year celebrations later this month to prevent the spread of the virus. Other regions have followed suit, telling people to shelter in place.

The central government has also banned public gatherings until the end of April and threatened jail time for those who fail to report suspected COVID-19 cases.

Government officials meanwhile have also threatened to take legal action against those who overcharge Myanmar consumers for hand sanitizers, face masks, and other essential goods.

The Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) says it will examine prices of medical supplies, pharmaceuticals, and foodstuffs to make sure vendors are not engaging in price gouging during the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19, state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported.

Those who are found guilty of price gouging can be charged under Section 5 of the Essential Supplies and Services Law, which carries a six-month to three-year prison term and up to 500,000 kyats (US $353) in fines. (Source: RFA)