On 22 March 2014, the Mekong Migration Network (MMN) held a workshop entitled “the Bottom of ASEAN”, during the 11th ASEAN civil society conference / ASEAN people’s forum held in Yangon, Burma/Myanmar. The workshop was co-hosted by Legal Support for Children and Women, Cambodia, Foundation for Education and Development, Thailand, Generation 88, Myanmar, APWLD, and Workers Hub for Change, Malaysia. Over 100 participants from 15 countries, including 50 workers from industrial zones in Burma/Myanmar, and labour activists from Cambodia who have been active in the recent garment worker strikes in Phnom Penh attended the workshop. This workshop offered an excellent opportunity for Burmese workers and Cambodian workers to exchange their experiences and strategies to address common challenges.
The workshop included an interactive activity in which participants calculated how long workers have to work in order to buy basic commodities in Cambodia, Thailand and Burma/Myanmar. These calculations were then compared to wages and purchasing power in investor countries such as Japan and the UK. A panel of speakers, including representatives from Burmese and Cambodian labour rights movements, spoke about the opportunities and risks arising from increased foreign direct investment in Burma/Myanmar; the current challenges faced by garment workers and their unions in Cambodia; the impact of investment projects on migration; the campaign for a living wage and a case study of a factory which does pay workers a living wage. Participants also shared messages of solidarity with Cambodian workers on a banner.
Acknowledging that all the workers at the bottom of ASEAN – local and migrant workers alike – are facing the same challenges, worker representatives and workshop participants came up with the following recommendations:
In the context of the recent shocking level of oppression against workers who exercise their right to collective bargaining, and continued exploitation and deprivation of living wages of workers in the region, 115 workers and advocates from 15 countries urge all governments and investors in ASEAN to protect the rights of all workers, including migrant workers, and workers in the informal sector, specifically,
Workshop participants recommend governments to:
- Immediately stop all forms of oppression against workers who exercise their right for freedom of expression and assembly, and their right to strike.
- Ensure minimum wages are living wages and improve all working conditions for ASEAN countries (i.e. OHS regulations, 8 working hours a day, 40 hours a week, paid maternity leave, regular long term contracts).
- Create space for independent trade unions and migrant workers associations to participate in decision making in ASEAN.
- Expand coverage of social security to include all workers, including informal sector and migrant workers, and work towards portable social security systems and guarantee social protection to all workers, including informal sectors and migrant workers, and work towards portable social security systems.
Workshop participants recommend investors to:
- Abide by international labour standards even when the national standards fall below.
- Adhere to international standards on corporate respect for human rights (UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights) in addition to self-regulating codes of conducts and/or business ethical principles.
- Ensure that investments do not lead to loss of livelihood, displacement, violation of human rights, and environmental destruction affecting the communities and future generations.
- Ensure that workers throughout the supply chain are paid a living wage, which may necessitate reforms of sourcing policies.
At a special session after the workshop, Cambodian and Burmese workers continued to share their ideas and concerns, as well as some solidarity songs.