The All Burma Federation of Trade Unions (ABFTU) was established on 1st May 2017 with a plan to avoid registering with the government. According to Ko Kyaw Myo, a member of ABFTU’s central advocacy committee, the reason for remaining an unregistered union federation was that the official trade union framework was just a way to restrict workers from organising and therefore an ineffective way for workers to advance their interests. In addition, registered union federations in Myanmar do not effectively represent their members and so there was a need for an independent federation through which workers could organize to claim their rights and improve their working conditions, taking a confrontational approach to labour disputes, if needed. As Ko Kyaw Myo explained, “I don’t trust the current dispute settlement process. The nature of labour disputes is complex and sometimes we do not have enough time to get permission from anyone. If we were to wait for permission, we would have little chance of succeeding in our struggle.”
ABFTU’s understanding of labour struggles is based on the view that the feasibility of achieving workers’ demands in workplace disputes hinges on the employer, rather than the government, and therefore workers need to confront employers directly, rather than indirectly through the government dispute resolution mechanism.
At present, ABFTU consists of about 500 workers organized in 14 Basic Labour Organisations (workplace-level trade unions). When the federation was established, the central advocacy committee included 12 people. The strategy that ABFTU follows is to start with democratic grassroots unions at the factory level, and then build from the bottom up to form a trade union federation.
The idea for ABFTU came following a dispute with the Myanmar Trade Union Federation (MTUF) in 2013 regarding whether or not to legally register. Following the dispute, some workers, including Ko Kyaw Myo, resigned from MTUF. These workers agreed that the legitimacy of a trade union rests solely on the will of the workers involved. According to Ko Kyaw Myo, “We workers should work for labour rights ourselves. And to do this, we need to be independent. If we were to register, we would not be able to remain independent, because we would be bound by the law.”
ABFTU was initially formed to be a general national-level federation open to all workers, including farmers, industrial workers, and workers in other sectors in Myanmar. There are still many steps to pass and the federation is in the process of trying to hold a national workers’ convention. Although ABFTU members believe registration restricts trade union activities, they acknowledge that registration serves an important role for advocacy and legitimising unions. Some ABFTU member unions at the enterprise level have therefore applied for (and obtained) Form 7, the official trade union registration form, because they believe it provides them some protection. One member stated that before registering, they faced discrimination in the workplace. However, after registering and receiving their Form 7, factory supervisors had to accept the union and were afraid of the union.
In practice, ABFTU members try to resolve workplace disputes at their initial stage by negotiating inside the factory, issuing their demands to the employer, as well as to the Township Conciliation Body as an ultimatum to the concerned parties. Under the legal framework, when workers face problems at their workplace, they must first submit their demands collectively or individually to the factory administration and the Township Conciliation Body. However, they must then wait as the process drags on. Therefore, if the employer and Township Conciliation Body neglect the workers’ demands, ABFTU workers commence advocacy and prepare a strike to resolve their grievances, rather than wait for further negotiations through the Township Conciliation Body. Ko Kyaw Myo thinks that going on strike is the best tool to threaten employers, because employers worry about the strike hurting their profits.
For ABFTU, picketing and striking are the main tools for achieving workers’ demands. They have used this approach in disputes at the KGG factory
(2017 Nov – 2018 Jan), Fu Yuen garment factory
(2018 Aug – Oct), and Myanmar Ever Green factory (2016 Jan). The reason for preferring striking over the government’s dispute resolution process is that the official process is time-consuming and it is likely that factory managers will reject the Arbitration Council’s decision. The Myanmar Times
reported that employers have ignored sixty percent
of the Arbitration Council’s rulings. As a result, many workers have lost confidence in the government’s Arbitration Council.
According to the 2012 Labour Dispute Settlement Law, striking is legal only when disputes are not completely resolved after going through all stages of the official arbitration process. The ABFTU’s approach is therefore to confront employers directly in the workplace rather go through the official arbitration process. This approach is outside the legal framework, but it has proven to be more effective. Although such a confrontational approach is risky for workers, ABFTU workplace unions continue to pursue this strategy: directly negotiating with management in the workplace, and then striking immediately afterwards if negotiations fail. According to the new Settlement of Labour Disputes Law, amended on 3 June 2019, provision no.39 (a), workers are forbidden from any activities that harm productivity or the interests of other workers. This provision aims to restrict the activities of unions in the factory who do not accept the decision of the Arbitration Council. According to one ABFTU leader, ABFTU workers negotiating outside the legal framework have succeeded in about eighty-five to ninety percent of workplace disputes. In the case of Myanmar Ever Green, a plywood and veneer factory, the workers themselves resolved their dispute by negotiating directly with the factory owner, and they received compensation as they had demanded for the closing of the factory. Although the employer had initially paid compensation in accordance with the law, the workers were not satisfied with the amount, which was equivalent to only a one-month salary or half-monthly salary based on their service time. The workers’ therefore asked ABFTU for help, conducted an eleven-day strike, and then got their demand, which was compensation equal to three months’ salary. 
Although it can be difficult for workers to fully achieve their demands in such cases, direct confrontation is often more effective for the workers involved.
Most issues resolved by ABFTU unions concern organising trade unions, wages, compensation, and overtime pay.
Most workers are not aware of their legal rights before joining the union. One member stated, “We did not know anything about labour law and our legal rights. After we joined the trade union, we learned about our rights and were able to demand our rights from management. On the other hand, we have not been selected for overtime because of being trade unionists.”
It is clear that organising a trade union makes workers more aware about their employment conditions and their legal rights, but such organisers are also discriminated against by factory management in various ways.
ABFTU operates solely on the basis of member dues from the members of workplace trade unions, which are paid at a rate of 10,000 kyat per month, and donations from other supporters. Ko Kyaw Myo stated, “We don’t want to accept aid from international organisations because it will restrict us, as we would be no longer independent. We might be constrained by them.” Although this way of self-funding allows ABFTU to remain independent, it is not sufficient to support their activities, especially when workers are on strike. The financial problems of the federation are significant and will be critical for the life of the union.
Among ABFTU member unions, the Fu Yuen Factory Trade Union illustrates well the challenges of factory-level trade unions. In this factory, management has always attempted to divide the unionised workers from the non-unionised workers by threatening non-unionised workers or by disturbing the union’s advocacy in the factory.
Ma Thet Htar Swe, a leader of Fu Yuen Factory Trade Union said, “Since the union was established, we unionised workers have not been chosen for overtime. They choose the other non-unionised workers who are connected with supervisors and management.” In Myanmar, the current minimum wage of 4,800 MMK
is not sufficient for workers’ well-being. Therefore, workers have to work overtime in order to support themselves and their families. If a worker is not permitted to work overtime, he or she will face financial difficulties. This is what has happened with trade union organizers, who are often turned down for overtime when they request it.
ABFTU trade union organizers working at the Myanmar Consumer Enterprise faced similar discrimination. This denial of overtime is a common way by which managers oppress trade union organizers in the factories.