Hundreds of workers marched down Anawrahta Road in downtown Yangon on May 1, chanting slogans and waving banners in honor of Workers’ Day, making sure the public holiday remained true to its original purpose – the recognition of the contributions and the rights on workers. Not all Yangon residents, however, had sympathy for the outspoken laborers.
The demonstrators, many of them members of the Myanmar Industries Craft and Services Trade Unions Federation (MICS-TUsF), marched to demand a raise in the minimum wage, better overtime pay, and greater government involvement in protecting the rights of workers.
Taking a quick pause from leading the hundred or so marchers in her section in their rhythmic chanting of “Do a yay! Do a yay!” (Our cause! Our cause!), Daw Kyi Kyi Win, the chairperson of a labor union based in Shwepyithar Township, explained the purpose of the march.
“We want the workers to get a full salary. The amount they are getting in not enough. That’s why we are here today. In the long run, we want workers to get K5,000 (US$3.68) or K6,000 (US$4.42) per day,” she told Coconuts. We don’t know if they want to give us that money, but we will demand it until we get it. They reason for this is because the amount workers get paid is not enough to feed their families and pay for housing.”
In Jan. 2018, the National Committee for Minimum Wage announced that it would set the basic national minimum wage at K4,800 (US$3.54) per day. However, no legislation has been passed to codify the announcement into law, and the minimum wage effectively remains at K3,600 (US$2.65) per day.
The march drew a heavy attention from residents, business owners, workers, and customers who saw the procession go by. Many, including some employees, stopped what they were doing to crowd around store entrances to watch the chanting crowd as it passed.
When asked what they thought of the march, a group of waitresses watching the protest from the entrance of the restaurant where they work broke out into shy giggles. Eventually, one of them offered: “They are protesting for workers, so I support that. I am a worker, too, so I support them.”
Not all of those watching the proceedings were supportive of the labor activists, though. One man hopped along beside the marchers for about a block mockingly repeating their chants back at them while performing a sort of dance.
A street vendor proclaimed to the demonstrators: “If you don’t like how much you are getting paid, go work somewhere else!” She then turned to her neighboring fruit seller to say: “They act like they are being robbed or something.”
Workers’ Day is, of course, deeply rooted in socialist and communist history. When asked about what he thought about capitalism, one marcher, who identified himself only as Ko Kyaw, said: “On this day, Workers’ Day, on International Workers’ Day, I want all the people of this country, from students to civil society groups to workers, that if we are united, we have a lot of power. I don’t put much stock in capitalism. Since we work under a capitalist system, I want that system to take care of the workers as much as possible. But I don’t support a system that divides people into capitalists and workers.”