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DAWN: Lack of Trade Unions -- Ful

Subject: DAWN:  Lack of Trade  Unions -- Full of Labor Rights Violations

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DAWN News Bulletin
September/October 1995


" THIN BAW THA"  the Burmese word literally means the
"Sailor or seafarer", but in Burmese meaning, it means greatly
wider; a person who fortunately gets the on the foreign flag-
ships, earns big money and has the chance to go and see the
outside world that is a common dream of almost all Burmese
who are locked up inside their homeland.  More importantly,
they are the one who can leave legally the country in despair or
fear.  But very few people know the hardships and problems of
the Burmese seafarers how they are working below the
standards recognized by the international labor organization. 
Their plights are unseen and their voice are unheard inside
Burma due to the banning of trade unions.  Moreover, it is a
grievous fact that Burmese authorities have committed flagrant
violations of human rights and trade union rights through its
oppression of Burmese seafarers serving on foreign flagships. 
Instead of protection the Burmese seafarers' rights, the Burmese
authorities have been collaborating with the immoral shipping
companies and manning agents in the labor rights violation.

Burma is legally bounded by ILO Convention.  Burma has
ratified the ILO Convention No. 87 concerning freedom of
association and protection of the tight to organized adopted on 9
July 1948 at ILO's thirty - first session.  Its article 2 mentions
"Workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall
have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the
organization concerned, to join organizations of their own
choosing without previous authorization.". But in reality, like
other laborers, the seafarers are not allowed to establish the
trade union that can work for their own welfare and voice their

In Burma. the Seaman Employment Control Division (SECD)
which operates under the auspices of the Department of Marine
Administration works for the placement of all Burmese
seafarers.  This agency in turn comes under the responsibility of
the Ministry of Transport and Communications.  No single
representative of seafarer includes and it is totally controlled by
the Burmese govemment over the placement of all Burmese
seafarers.  Likewise other departments, since military has
lunched a systematically militarization by replacing almost all
the intellectual civilian posts with officers in uniform, most of
the senior official in SECD are ex - military officers.  Burmese
seafarers have to work with whatever pay and conditions the
flags of convenience ships they work for offer.  That would be
no surprise to see the actual wage they receive is much less than
the international labor organization's recommended minimum

Burmese seafarers are in good demand by the shipping
companies for their hard working and good technical experience
compared to the others from other Asian countries.  But because
of the lack of a trade union that can bargain for the minimum
wage with the company, the Burmese are paid less than other
crews.  There would be a unseen reason of good demand since
the Burmese seafarer have no voice of complaint for this
discrimination.  They cannot claim their rights or accept
assistance from international labor organizations which fight for
the rights of laborers to improve their wages and working
conditions;  that results in abuse and intimidation by both their
government and shipping company.  Many unethical shipping
companies are taking advantage on this point and exploiting the
Burmese seafarers.  One Burmese middle - aged seafarer said
with depressed eyes while he was talking about their plight "we
are hard working, intelligent and more experienced than other
nationalities, but we are paid the lowest and we are the most

Addition to the lack of their own voice in the placement, the
Burmese seafarers are bound in the agreements they are
required to sign with SECD.  Before boarding a ship, they are
required to sign a contract stating that they will not contact
international labor organizations like International Transport
Workers' Federation (ITF).  This federation has over 400
transport workers' trade unions in more than 100 countries.  It
was founded in 1896 and intervenes directly in the industrial
relations of Flag of Convenience (foc) vessels, fighting for
minimum wages and trade union agreements.  Besides the
contract, Burmese seafarers have to sign the affidavit promising
that they would return the back pay money promptly and in full
to the owner in case of ITF intervention on low wage or unpaid
labor.  Also they have to promise in their affidavits that they
would agree to sign every month a "double payroll" if required
by the owner and agree to be legally liable for persecution in
case they break that personal agreement.

In the event that Burmese crew members received an ITF
settlement, they are required to pay the money back to the
SECD in Burma even if the ITF's intervention was requested by
Non Burmese members of the crews.  If they refuse, their
registration in SECD is revoked, passports confiscated and they
face the threat of imprisonment.  In at least one case of ITF
intervention, the Burmese crew of a flag - of - convenience ship
were told that their families would be in trouble if the action
was not called off. 

Since Burmese authorities take a very few action for the rights
and welfare of its seafarers on the ship, the plight and working
condition of the Burmese seafarers on the board are appalling. 
The salaries are paid in line with the agreement SECD or
manning agents in Burma has signed with the company which is
much less then the ILO and ITF recommended minimum wage. 
The ILO recommended minimum scale is 1,100 US$ but varies
depending on the workers' condition.  But the actual scale for
the Burmese Able Seaman (AB) is not more than 300 US$ plus
overtime.  To avoid the ITF intervention, some companies with
an ITF collective agreement use the "double bookkeeping," a
common phenomenon on flag of convenience ships.  In this
system crews members are given two lists to sign in each
payday, an official ITF salary list, and the SECD "ITF" salary
list which is considerably lower.  In case of ITF inspection, the
company shows the official ITF salary list and Burmese
seafarers in fear of persecution by their authorities and are
bounded with the agreement, do not dare to express or complain
about the truth.  In some cases, they are provided with the barest
minimum of food to survive and lack of safety in breach of
international standards.

Burmese authorities do not have any program for the welfare of
the seafarers even though they earn big foreign exchange for the
country.  A Burmese seafarer has to send fifty per cent of his
salary back to his family prior to 1989.  Beginning from 1989-90, this allotment was reduced to 25 per cent.  Not surprisingly,
the allotment as well as ten per cent for tax need to be
exchanged in official foreign exchange rate. (Official rate of
exchange is 6 kyats while black market rate is 110- 120 kyats).

Very few cases of Burmese seafarers are reportedly found
having contact with ITF and taking action against their
companies.  Because of the fear of retaliation by the Burmese
authorities, they are scared to fight for their legitimate rights
with the assistance of ITF.  Those who contacted the ITF in the
past regarding the noncompliance with collective agreements by
foreign shipping companies and their working conditions
generally have been subjected to retaliation by the Burmese au-
thorities.  This retaliation has included the confiscation of
passports, seamen's record books and qualifications that
prevents them from working as seafarer again in their entire

One seaman revealed how he has fought for his legitimate rights
against his shipping company on 29 September 1988 in
Sundvall, Sweden.  Altogether fourteen Burmese seafarers
working on board the Liberian-flag Trans Dignity contacted the
ITF - affiliated Swedish Seamen's Union (SSU) requesting help
in improving their working and living conditions on board ship. 
They were not provided sufficient food, faced lack of working
utilities and safety system.  Fire fighting equipment was broken
down on board and they were not provided gloves or warm
clothes for working outside in cold weather.  A local SSU
representative went on board and listened to the crew's
complaints.  The Trans Dignity was technically covered by an
ITF agreement but the crew were not being paid in accordance
with it.  The SSU representative found evidence of the usual
system of evasion- the crew were signing on two sets of ships
articles and dual wage accounts were in operation.  The SSU
decided to seek a termination of the existing agreement.  When
the owners refused to agree to this demand, the unions
boycotted the vessel for a period of six days until the owner's
representative, flying in from Hong Kong, eventually agreed to
sign the new agreement, and to pay the crew their back - pay
entitlement under it.  As part of the agreement, the owners gave
an undertaking that they would not subsequently victimize the
seamen by withdrawing their seamen's passports or registration
or attempting to claim back the payments obtained for them by
the Swedish unions action.

The new agreement awarded a total of US$ 176,845 in back -
pay to the fourteen Burmese crew.  When the claims had all
been settled, the crew who at their own insistence had already
received part of their back - pay in cash, prepare to leave
Sweden on a flight to Bangkok.  Their money and passports
were confiscated on arrival by the Burmese authorities,
prompting the Thai authorities to declare them illegal
immigrants and to request that they be returned to Burma as
soon as practicable.  Their passports were subsequently returned
but only after the ITF lawyers in Thailand had intervened on
their behalf.   A campaign was then launched designed to make
an example of the crew so as to ensure that no other Burmese
would ever accept assistance from the ITF or any of its
affiliates.  Later financial hardship forced all but three of the
former crew of the Trans Dignity to return home to Burma
where their passports and seamen's books were confiscated by
the Burmese authorities as punishment for accepting the help of
the ITF.  The Burmese authorities also confiscated all the back
pay and for one seafarer who had no money left, the Burmese
authorities confiscated his property even though all of them had
notary saying that these money were rightful compensation for
their back - pay by the company.

There are some other cases similar to this case.  On 3 June
1993, eleven Burmese former crew members of the Greek-flag
Angelic Faith were kidnaped by Burmese government officials
whist in transit through Singapore airport bound for Bangkok. 
These seafarers had received a back pay settlement of nearly
US$ 100,000 assisted by ITF.  They were effectively kidnaped
and returned forcibly to Burma.

Most recently, Soe Win (not his real name) from Jianda owned
by the Topco Shipping Co. Ltd. died on July 1995 while it was
harboring in the Philippines.  Sixteen Burmese including him
have ended up in Philippines since December 1994.  They have
not received the pay since then.  Their contact to their agent
based in Hong Kong and SECD was in vain with no response. 
They also contacted the Burmese Embassy in Manila to get help
for them but no action was taken.  Finally they got assistance
from Stella Maris Apostleship, a missionary organization base
in Manila.  That organization took care of all of them and filed
a legal lawsuit against the shipping company for the unpaid
wages of the Burmese seafarers on their behalf.   While the case
was pending, Soe Win died from drowning but nobody took
care of his funeral.  Finally with the assistance of other
organizations, his ashes were brought back to his family in
Burma.  He was a father of three and was a former government
servant who had quit his job hoping to get a better job to catch
up with the sky - high prices in Burma.  He had paid 200,000
kyat to the manning agent in Rangoon for his employment on
this ship and his family is still in debt.  His surviving family
does not know how to get compensation or how to get his back - 
pay from the company since neither SECD or manning agent
was taking care of this matter.

Though the intimidation and threat by the Burmese authorities,
some Burmese seafarers began to speak out for their rights to
organize their labor union and fight for their rights.  The idea of
seeking the assistance of an international trade union
organization is considered to be fundamental aspect of freedom
of association.  A group of Burmese seafarers have established
an ITF affiliated Seafarers' Union of Burma (SUB) based in
Thailand.  With their regular contact with the ITF, they are
working for the rights of their colleagues.  They became
affiliated with ITF in 1992 and are authorized to sign a
collective agreement with the shipping companies on behalf of 
Burmese seafarers.  According to the agreement, SUB is taking
care of the facts and condition of the seafarers signed in the
agreement.  SUB grantees to enjoy the full rights of the
seafarers and to protect the violations against the seafarers.  It
became the member of Asia-Pacific Regional Steering member
in ITF 37th Geneva Conference.

In the ILO Convention concerning Freedom of Association and
Protection of the Rights to Organize which Burma has signed,
article two mentions "workers and employers, without dis-
tinction whatsoever, shall have to rights to establish and, subject
only to the rules of the organization concerned, to join
organizations of their own choosing without previous
authorization." It is important and essential to guarantee and
respect the rights of seafarers to found an independent trade
union in Burma for the defense of their basic rights and interests
if they so wish.  The seafarers should be able to form and join
organizations of their own choice in full freedom.

In order to end the discrimination against the Burmese
seafarers, Burmese authorities have to withdraw the SECD
requirement that Burmese seafarers must sign an affidavit
restricting their rights to affiliate with or contact the
complainant for assistance, which requirement violates freedom
of association principles.

Burmese authorities also have to stop the victimization of
Burmese seafarers- such as revocation of their registration,
confiscation of their passports and even the threat of
imprisonment in the event that they accept and receive an ITF
settlement and they refuse to hand their back pay settlement to
the SECD.  They have to stop exerting the various types of
pressures on Burmese seafarers either directly or indirectly.

In Burma, the pursuit of freedom of association and formation
of trade unions is inextricably linked to the struggle for
democracy and human rights of the whole population.  Without
respect to the fundamental rights, the freedom of association are
unattainable.  Unless the democratic government is formed,
Burmese people including laborers and seafarers could not exer-
cise their basic rights.  All the seafarers are obliged to fight for
their legitimate rights not only for to end the discrimination
against them but for the restoration of democracy and human
rights in Burma.