Author: Saw Jonathan

Advisor: Asst. Prof. Pobsook Chamchong, PhD

Problem statement

Since 1962, the Myanmar military had prohibited trade unions and labor strike in the country. In 2010, the country had a major political transition from dictatorship to military-backed government and had a series of political, social, and economic reforms. Since then, trade unions were able to get back into the system and had some freedom to represent the workers through National Tripartite Dialogue Forum (NTDF). NTDF was formed in 2015, and it refers to the process of negotiation and consultation between government and representatives of employers and employees to address labor market policy and economic stability (Engin, 2018). In Myanmar case, the NTDF is not very democratic and has serious challenges for the employees’ representatives to fully participate and input their voice in the political agenda.

On 1st February 2021, the Myanmar military staged the coup and has been arresting and killing workers and trade unionists. In addition to crimes and violations committed by the military regime, their interference in governance has led to widespread social injustice. As a result of the military regime’s oppressive tactics, the National Tripartite Dialogue Forum (NTDF) no longer represents the genuine voice of the workers; thus, trade unions have decided to leave NTDF which operate under the military administration system (IndustriALL, 2021; ITUC , 2021). The decision is an attempt to ensure that workers’ and trade unions’ rights and interests are safeguarded from the military regime. In 2022, one of trade unions and non-government organizations (NGOs) that represent businesses in Myanmar started to adopt bipartite dialogue to continue to protect foreign businesses and workers in Myanmar (EuroCham, 2022; APHEDA, 2021). Therefore, the aim of this paper is to analyze how the trade unions can continue to represent fully to cope with political transitions and restrictions.

In times of political crisis, achieving social justice for workers and trade unions necessitates the adoption of a bipartite mechanism. This approach can effectively address social, political, and economic issues. Without proper processes in place, it is impossible to implement labor market policies in Myanmar successfully. The adoption of a bipartite social dialogue enables trade unions and employers to collaborate and negotiate in a more equitable and transparent manner. This approach ensures that the rights and interests of workers are adequately protected while enabling employers to maintain a stable business environment. Therefore, it is crucial to establish a proper process and framework that ensures the effective implementation of the labor market policies in Myanmar. Only then can we hope to achieve social justice for workers and trade unions, which is essential for the overall development and prosperity of the country.

This paper will contribute to new knowledge on how trade unions can adopt a resilience bipartite mechanism under current and future political changes through the lens of social justice. In this study, the bipartite discussion mechanism is used as a case study to examine and suggest a suitable and effective mechanism for trade unions in Myanmar to deal with political transitions.

Why integrating Social Justice into Myanmar Labor Policies is important?

            The research examines the pre-existing limitations in terms of representation, redistribution, and recognition faced by these unions, exacerbated by the onset of the coup d’état on February 1, 2021. The main concept of social justice theory is the recognition of three dimensions; political representation, economic distribution, and cultural recognition (Fraser, 2005, p. 5). In early periods, discussions of justice primarily focused on distribution and recognition and ignoring the political dimension of justice. The framing of political boundary often overlooked and assumed to be based on the nation-state. Her framework encompasses an examination of both systemic forms of injustice and the interplay of power relations that shape social hierarchies. Wright (2010) also supports Fraser’s understanding and critique of social justice by providing a complementary perspective on the principles and goals of social. While Fraser’s framework focuses on the three dimensions of social justice, his framework emphasizes the importance of equal access to material and social resources and equal access to political power.

Findings and Discussion

Limited democratic space

The research findings indicate that trade unions have faced obstacles in organizing, forming associations, and freely expressing their views. These challenges have been observed in previous periods of democratic transition. Trade unions encounter various difficulties, including registration hurdles, retaliation against the workers involved in union activities, and ineffective mechanisms for resolving labor law violations (DTDA, 2021, p. 9). The implementation of labor laws has not effectively prevented strikes. Instead, law enforcement authorities have used force against striking workers, referring to Article 505b of the Myanmar Penal Code, which criminalizes the spread of statements, causing fear or public unrest (The Irrawaddy, 2015). These findings show that trade unions face difficulties when trying to register, leading to significant delays in obtaining official recognition. According to Fraser’s concept of social justice, these barriers are used as political tactics to restrict the involvement of trade unions in the political process. Wright’s principle of individual freedom and democracy highlights the importance of empowering individuals to make choices that affect their lives. Without adequate worker representation and the freedom for trade unions to have decision-making power, achieving social justice becomes challenging.

Political transitions and restrictions

During the period spanning from 2010 to 2021, Myanmar underwent a series of political transitions, starting with the military-backed government, followed by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, and ultimately culminating in the coup d’état. Prior to the political transition in 2010, trade unions had been deemed illegal for several decades, which result in a deep-rooted distrust in the government that persisted even after the transition of power. The finding shows that the first International Labour Organization (ILO) project took place in June 2012, was an open forum in Yangon, attended by over 300 people. It provided a platform for participants to discuss issues related to freedom of association, assembly, and speech. Workers expressed doubts about the new regime’s potential for change and their trust in the government’s implementation of the law (Henry, 2016, p. 87). According to Wright and Fraser’s perspectives on social justice, the introduction of the right to form unions reflects their ideas of individual freedom and recognition. It is a positive step that empowers workers and allows them to have a say in their working conditions and well-being. Fraser’s perspective highlights that when freedom of association and political discourse are restricted, it denies the recognition of workers as active participants in society. This could create barriers that hinder trade unions and workers from fully engaging in politics. Moreover, the doubts and skepticism indicate the importance of examining the power dynamics and limitations within the political context.

Furthermore, newly introduced labor rights in Myanmar have allowed workers to make demands that challenge business profitability. As a result, employers and government agencies use more coercive means to suppress worker unrest. This mix of coercive and consent-seeking approaches characterizes Myanmar’s labor regime, aiming to make workers accept unequal and exploitative employment conditions (Arnold & Campbell, 2017, p. 12). The suppression of worker unrest in Myanmar reflects existing power imbalances and restrictions within the political landscape. From a social justice perspective, the coercive and consent-seeking approaches used in Myanmar’s labor regime deny workers their rightful status as active social agents, hindering their full engagement and advocacy for their rights. This underscores the ongoing need to challenge barriers and establish fair labor practices.

Lack of trust and representation

            Since before the coup, there has been a lack of trust in government institutions due to their highly centralized structure. During the democratic period, all stakeholders experienced a widespread lack of trust in industrial relations in Myanmar, as indicated by numerous sources. The National Tripartite Dialogue Forum (NTDF) was created in 2015 to hold regular meetings and discuss labor market reforms. However, in 2019, tensions arose during discussions on labor law reforms, leading trade unions to suspend their participation in tripartite forums. The trade unions felt that the government and parliament disregarded workers’ views and international labor standards when developing draft bills (DTDA, 2021, p. 11). A union organizer from the FTUM pointed out that although officials and workers in some townships are their friends, there was a fundamental lack of trust between the labor department and the union (Henry, 2016, p. 84). By mid-2015, many workers in Myanmar had lost trust in the country’s Arbitration Council because they believed it favored employers over employees. (Htwe & Barron, 2015). The lack of trust in government institutions and the perception that the Arbitration Council favors employers create a sense of unfair representation and unequal power dynamics. To address this, it is important to establish a fair mechanism that ensures the transparency and equal representation for all stakeholders, especially workers and unions.

The additional findings show that the situation has worsened after the coup as there are fewer job opportunities available in the current labor market compared to the past. Unions are unable to openly advocate labor rights due to the presence of the military council (FLAG, 2022, p. 64). Employers also create yellow unions to pretend to protect workers’ rights, avoiding workers’ unions and their demands (FLAG, 2022, p. 22). Labor laws were often ignored or applied selectively, with a clear bias towards business owners and the ruling regime (U.S. Department of State, 2022, p. 37). Employers’ establishment of yellow unions undermines workers’ representation, while the selective enforcement of labor laws favors business owners and the ruling regime. This perpetuates power imbalances and social injustices, limiting labor union’s ability to advocate for labor rights.

Lack of effective mechanisms

During the democratic transition, the mechanism in place to address labor rights already exhibited weaknesses. However, with the intervention of the military regime, these weaknesses were further exacerbated, leading to a more severe deterioration of the situation. Employers reportedly bribed tribunals, leading to unjust decisions. Resolving disputes has become harder as employers and the Ministry of Labor offer less support. Filing complaints is challenging, and workers are wary of biased arbitration tribunals. (FLAG, 2022, p. 24). The regime inadequately enforced labor laws, as it did not consistently penalize violations of wage and working hour regulations and rarely addressed cases of employer negligence. (U.S. Department of State, 2022, p. 42). Trade unions found that the formal procedures for resolving labor disputes, and going to court were not effective in enforcing labor laws. Thus, workers took a different approach by working with international brands to put pressure on factories to address issues like reinstating workers or resolving conflicts. (DTDA, 2021, p. 13).

The regime’s failure to enforce labor laws and address violations, as well as the neglect of cases involving employer negligence, point to institutional barriers present in the system. These barriers create a power imbalance that leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation and undermines their rights and freedoms. Workers are not recognized as important actors and their voices are suppressed, limiting their ability to fight for their rights. The deterioration of labor rights under the military regime highlights various barriers: violations of labor laws, corruption, and collusion. To overcome these obstacles, stronger institutions are needed to protect workers’ rights and promote social justice, individual freedom, and democratic participation. Workers have sought alternative ways, such as engaging with international brands, to address these barriers and seek justice outside of the compromised domestic systems.


The labor situation in Myanmar faces big challenges due to limited democratic space, ongoing political turmoil, and authoritarian rule. These issues particularly impact trade unions and workers. However, trade unions can use social dialogue effectively to talk with others and fight for workers’ rights. According to ILO, social dialogue can either be in tripartite or bipartite to have positive discussions. The gaps in literatures show that current tripartite social dialogue is not working due to misrepresentation, misframing, and misrecognition (Tea Circle Oxford, 2022; IFJ, 2021; U.S. Department of State, 2022; Fair Wear, 2019, pp. 10-12, 28-30). In time of political turmoil and authoritarian rule, the best approach for trade unions to have dialogue is thought the bipartite mechanism which can give democratic space and express workers’ concerns and demands and find solutions that everyone agrees with and excluding the government. By using bipartite social dialogue, trade unions can stand up for workers’ rights, make working conditions better, and solve problems peacefully. As suggested by Dryzek (2011), such social dialogue needs to be authentic, inclusive, and consequential.

Policy recommendations for trade unions in Myanmar


  • An inclusive platform where workers, employers, suppliers, and representatives from local and international brands can engage in discussions is needed. This platform, known as bipartite social dialogue, aims to not only protect and promote workers’ right to freely associate and join trade unions of their choice, but also reduce the risk of getting exposed to the military regime.
  • It is crucial to give trade unions a meaningful say in decisions about labor laws, policies, and social welfare programs. In bipartite dialogue, everyone is considered equal, and no one has more power than the others. This means that both brands and trade unions have a fair role in making decisions together.
  • It is crucial to have strong international cooperation and support to assist trade unions in their efforts to advocate for workers and make their voices heard. Since international brands are still sourcing from suppliers in Myanmar, it is important for global trade unions and federations to stay observe and monitor the compliance of brands from their respective countries operating in Myanmar to ensures the protection of workers’ rights in the region.


  • Collaborative efforts between workers’ representatives and employers are needed to implement fair wage policies and ensure that workers receive just compensation. This is necessary because there have been cases where employers violated labor rights by paying below the minimum wage, not providing paid leave or overtime pay as entitled by the law and employing workers on a casual basis.
  • Support programs that include training, legal assistance, and access to information and resources are needed in Myanmar. However, the surveillance by employers and the military government makes it difficult to obtain ground-level information. Nevertheless, establishing bipartite dialogue between trade unions and brands can help overcome this challenge and provide unrestricted access to information. Building trust and transparency between these social partners is crucial. Trade unions can also contribute by offering awareness training and legal assistance to the workers in a secure environment.


  • Recognize and value the contributions of workers to the economy and society, including their labor and ideas. However, due to the coup in Myanmar, trade unions are facing threats and restrictions from the authoritarian regime, which undermines their legitimacy. The military is oppressing and targeting trade unions instead of collaborating to address labor issues. To overcome this, trade unions in Myanmar can form partnerships with global or international trade unions. This will help them gain recognition and engage in dialogue with social partners to express their ideas and address labor concerns.
  • Promote workplace environment that value and treat all workers with respect, regardless of their background or status. This can be achieved by encouraging employers to adopt fair labor practices, including treating workers fairly and providing safe working conditions. By using a bipartite mechanism, social partners can work together to ensure that suppliers and employers comply with international human rights due diligence, protecting the rights of workers. Failure to comply with these practices can result in boycott or condemnation by local trade unions and global partners, reinforcing the significance of upholding fair labor standards.


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