This is an excerpt of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center's Interview: Labor, Business Must Partner for Ethical Investment in Burma.
Political transformation is happening fast in Burma, but social and cultural change are just beginning—putting the country at a key tipping point for how it ultimately will be structured, says Pyi Thit Nyunt Wai, general secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma (FTUB).
“We’re starting at ground zero. The country is like dough that’s being kneaded. We must decide what shape it has to be,” he says.
Known familiarly as U Maung Maung during his 24 years in exile, the Burmese trade union leader joined Burmese employer groups, investors and representatives of U.S.-based multinationals in Washington, D.C., Nov. 27 in a first-of-its-kind meeting sponsored by the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center. The group discussed how to shape corporate responsibility and implement best practices as global multinationals consider investing in Burma. Now is the time to ensure their involvement is done right, says Maung Maung.
“Labor needs to be involved from the start. I would rather have workers’ rights built in from the beginning rather than added on later.” The most recent deadly garment factory fires in Bangladesh served as the meeting’s somber backdrop, a harsh example of a failed model of global corporate practice in which hundreds of garment workers have been killed in factory fires over the past few years.
Burma’s new labor laws, passed late last year, allow the creation of unions, with a minimum of 30 members. Within weeks of the laws’ passage, groups of woodworkers, garment workers, hatters, shoemakers, seafarers and other trades, including agricultural workers, registered openly as trade unions. There currently are 380 local unions registered with the government, and 500 more in line waiting for approval, Maung Maung says.