Recognizing Workers’ Rights Struggles around the Globe—On Labor Day and Throughout the Year


Recognizing Workers’ Rights Struggles around the Globe—On Labor Day and Throughout the Year

September 4, 2009

KWO member weaving in Mae La refugee camp near the Thai-Burmese border.

For many of us who have never experienced labor rights abuse, Labor Day might not evoke the sense of struggle inherent in its origin. But for women like Naw Htoo Paw—a Burmese human rights activist working with AJWS grantee Karen Women’s Organization—Labor Day is a critical reminder of the enduring fight for workers’ rights in Burma and in so many countries around the globe. Naw Htoo Paw shares:

“I grew up in a very little village in a rural area in Burma* [also known as Myanmar]. In my village, we always thought it was normal for women to be raped, normal that villagers are arrested and killed without any reason, for people to do forced labor. We think this way because we've had to live with this situation since my grandparents' generation. So for people in my village, this is normal life. And if you can imagine it, for the people from my area, their experiences are even worse than mine.”

Burma has a sobering history of labor and human rights exploitation. The country’s ethnic minorities—representing more than 32 percent of the population—face some of the most egregious human rights violations in the world. Burma’s oppressive military-led State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has implemented forced recruitment of child soldiers and forced labor to control its citizens. Women and girls in these minority groups have been principally subject to violence, torture and rape as part of ethnic cleansing.

As a result of these exploitive realities, hundreds of thousands of people seek refuge and employment in neighboring countries. There are approximately 150,000 living in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border and over 1 million Burmese refugees currently live and work in Thailand as migrants, though the official numbers only list half of those as registered with the Thai authorities.

Migrant workers usually work in low-wage, dangerous and labor-intensive sectors of the Thai economy: domestic, garment and factory, agriculture and the fishing industry. Hours are often long—14-hour days with no overtime compensation. Many Burmese workers report unfair wage disputes, discrimination and, in some cases, physical abuse. Burmese are viewed as lower class by Thais and are often subject to inhumane treatment at the hand of their employers.

“The risks facing Burmese workers who advocate for labor rights in Thailand are so profound,” reported an AJWS grants officer. “On Labor Day, it is imperative for Americans to reflect upon the struggle for workers’ rights worldwide and to express their solidarity with those who are chronically disempowered and whose lives are fraught with exploitation.”

Unlike in the United States, where Labor Day is officially marked by collective expressions of activism and workers’ rights demonstrations, political dissent remains prohibited in Burma. Mass public demonstrations, most notably those led by student activists and Burmese monks on August 8, 1988 and in the fall of 2007, are violently suppressed by Burma’s military regime. Another violent incident occurred in 2003 when six young Burmese workers were beaten, shot dead and their bodies covered with tyres and set on fire after they attempted to free friends and relatives kidnapped by a local politician. More recently, in January 2009, Burmese migrants and refugees seeking asylum in Thailand near the Andaman Sea coast testified that they had been sent back to sea in boats without engines, their hands tied and left to die out on the water. Hundreds are thought to have suffered this treatment and many have perished.

From Workers’ Justice to Global Change

Since 2002, AJWS has supported grassroots organizations that work with Burmese refugees, internally displaced people and migrant workers in Thailand and along Burma’s borders. AJWS currently provides grants to 19 community-based organizations addressing diverse issues including basic human rights, labor rights, primary education, women’s leadership and gender-based violence, community organizing and HIV/AIDS prevention.

A few examples:

  • Karen Women’s Organization, a collective of Karen minority women working along the Thailand-Burma border, provides social welfare for refugees and promotes women’s rights.

  • Borderline Women’s Collective, a textiles shop run by women weavers, works to create livelihoods and build self sufficiency for refugees and women of ethnic minorities living along the Thai-Burma border.

As we celebrate Labor Day, let’s remember to reflect upon workers’ rights struggles around the globe and commit to doing our part to build a fair and just society for all.

* The name Myanmar was given to the country by the SPDC in 1989. Pro-democracy activists still use the former name, Burma, to vocalize their objection to military rule. In solidarity with these activists AJWS refers to the country as Burma.