Anatomy of a Burmese migrant strike

On Friday, 4 May 2012 about 500 Myanmar migrant workers employed at the SD Fashion/Idea Garment factory in Mae Sot, Tak Province, claimed victory in a struggle against their employer for increased wages and improved living and working conditions.  The workers achieved a doubling of their wages as a result of a two-day wildcat strike they initiated on Wednesday 2 May.  This case is just one of a string of collective actions carried out by migrants in Songkla, Kanchanaburi and Tak Provinces following the 1 April increase in Thailand’s minimum wage.

The following account provides some details on this action as a contribution towards developing greater understanding of the possibilities for workers’ self-organisation under contemporary conditions of flexible labour.  Recent scholarship on labour “flexibilisation” has called attention to global transformations in employment regimes, which have given management greater flexibility in setting the terms of work while challenging earlier models of labour organising.  Yet the fact that workplace struggles nonetheless persist amid such conditions suggests that much remains to be learned about the possibilities for organising under contemporary labour regimes.

In the case of the SD Fashion/Idea Garment factory (locally known by its former name “Champion”), most of the day-rate workers had been earning 75 baht for a daily 8:00 am to 9:00 pm shift.  From 9:00 pm onwards these workers received overtime pay at a rate of 7.5 baht an hour.  As most factories in Mae Sot begin overtime pay at 6:00 pm, the three hours from 6:00 to 9:00 pm were for the Champion workers as though unpaid forced overtime.  Furthermore, the wage of 75 baht per day was far below the legal minimum wage in Tak Province, which was increased from 162 to 226 baht per day on 1 April.  Beyond the problems of wages and work time, the workers complained of grossly unhygienic sanitation facilities, a lack of water in the washrooms, and the fact that there was no door on the toilet.  Not willing to endure this situation any longer, the workers began demanding increased wages and improved conditions on 8 April.  Their employer, however, repeatedly asserted that he could not afford any increase.

As their demands continued unmet some of these workers attended a local May Day rally in Mae Sot where they ran into colleagues from Royal Knitting, another Mae Sot-based garment factory.  The Royal Knitting workers told them how a couple weeks prior they had won a wage increase to 155 baht per day through collective action at their factory.  The Royal and Champion workers discussed common grievances and exchanged ideas about workplace struggles.  Stimulated from the May Day rally and the discussion with the Royal Knitting factory workers, the Champion workers organised themselves that night to carry out a wildcat strike the next day, if their demands remained unmet. 

By 11:30 the next morning word reached workers throughout the factory that the employer was not going to make any concessions.  Thus, as planned, the wildcat began with workers in the knitting department shutting off their lights and walking out.  As workers in the other departments saw the signal, they too shut off their lights and walked out.  At this point the workers’ chosen representatives approached the manager to issue the following demands, which had been collectively decided upon the previous day:

  1. An increase in the daily wage to at least 155 baht/day for the lowest paid workers
  2. A piece rate increase of 30%
  3. A fixed work time of 8:00 am to 5:00 pm for the daily wage
  4. Provision of water and an improvement in sanitation facilities
  5. An overtime wage rate of 30 baht per hour
  6. A 20 baht payment for their daily “time card” check

Rejecting these demands, the manager instead offered the workers a 15 baht per day increase and told them “If you want to work at this rate, work.  If not, get out.”  As the workers were not satisfied with this amount they contacted the Mae Sot branch of the Thai Labour Protection Office (LPO), which sent a lawyer on 3 May to meet with the factory manager.  The workers, meanwhile, remained out on strike.  Following this meeting, the LPO lawyer visited the workers and told them to send their representatives to the LPO on Friday, May 4th at 10:00 am for a negotiating meeting with an LPO staff member and the employer.

At 9:45 on Friday morning, 14 workers, along with staff from the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association and the Joint Action Committee for Burmese Affairs (JACBA), met outside the Labour Protection Office.  The workers discussed the recent events and went over plans for the negotiating meeting.  The Yaung Chi Oo and JACBA staff offered the workers encouragement, information and suggestions.  JACBA’s U Moe Kyo, for example, stated “When you’re in the negotiating room, if there aren’t enough chairs, don’t crouch down on your haunches.  It’s better to stand.  Don’t put yourself at a lower level than the employers.  You need to show that you are their equals.  And make sure to spit out your betel nut before you go inside.”

Shortly before 10:00 am we saw the general manager and two sub-managers enter the LPO office.  The LPO interpreter then came out to invite seven worker representatives inside.  The negotiating meeting lasted close to three hours.  At one point, two staff from the local worker organisations and I were invited inside when negotiations got stuck over the amount of increase for the piece rate.  The workers had demanded a 30% increase and the employer responded with an offer of 17.5%.  The worker representatives were mostly on daily wages and therefore phoned to consult some of the piece-rate workers about the offer of 17.5%.  The employer and LPO staffer, however, were pressing the representatives to hurry up.  At this point, the Thai factory manager, who did not appear very content with the situation, turned to me and said in English, “I want to cut this short. These workers have been off work for two days already and I’ve lost 200,000 baht.”  The worker representatives nonetheless took their time in order to ensure that the concerns of their piece-rate colleagues were fully included in any final agreement.

When negotiations finished at around 1:00 pm, both sides signed an agreement under the auspices the Labour Protection Office, according to which:

  1. The base daily wage will be increased to 155 baht per day (with wages of higher paid workers increasing commensurately)
  2. The piece rate will be increased by 20%
  3. The standard shift for the daily wage will be shortened to 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
  4. Management will address workers’ concerns about the lack of water and poor sanitation facilities
  5. No workers will be fired for taking part in this action

The overtime rate and “time check” payment are to be decided at a future negotiating session scheduled for 1 June

Although the new wage rate remains far below the official minimum wage (and even below the pre-1 April rate) the workers involved in this action were generally satisfied with the final agreement.  At a meeting of workers following the Friday negotiations those involved in the action were exuberant about their victory.  They were also pleased with their own capacity to act collectively to achieve their goals in the face of management intransigence.  I asked one worker who had taken a leading role in this action what he thought were the workers’ key strengths.  He replied: “Our solidarity, of course!”  In addition, this worker pointed to the fact that his previous experience of workplace struggle at a different factory in Mae Sot had given him knowledge and confidence with which to engage in the present action.  He also acknowledged his appreciation for the support he and his coworkers had received from local worker support organisations, especially technical information on Thai labour law.  Sitting together after the event the workers chatted contentedly about their victory and, what is for many of them, a newly realised capacity for self-organisation and collective action, which some told me they hoped to apply again in the event of future workplace conflicts.

Stephen Campbell is a PhD student in the department of anthropology, University of Toronto, researching precarious labour and worker organising among Myanmar migrants in Thailand.

About Stephen Campbell, Guest Contributor