TAVOY—About 70 Burmese laborers working on the construction of the Tavoy (Dawei) deep-sea port project went on strike in early February to protest low wages and long working hours, according to local workers living in Nebule, a village track located within the project area.
Italian Thai Development Public Company Ltd. (ITD), Thailand’s largest construction conglomarate, won a 60-year grant from Burma’s military junta to construct the mega project on a 250 sq. km site along Maungmagan beach.
“We have to work 10 hours per day, but get paid only 3,500 kyat (US $4.11),” a Burmese worker involved in the protest told The Irrawaddy. “We also have to work on public holidays without overtime payment and receive payments only after the 10th day of each month.”
“Also, there is different treatment of Thai and Burmese workers,” he added.
The striking workers sent ITD several demands: to increase the daily payment from 3,500 kyat to 5,000 kyat ($5.88); to reduce working hours; to pay overtime for work on public holidays; and to pay workers in the early days of each month.
In Burma, worker protests in the past usually occurred in the industrial zones on the outskirts of Rangoon, the former capital. The protest at the Tavoy project is the first reported since ITD signed the construction agreement with the junta in November.
“Representatives from the Thai company said they referred the workers’ demands to their superiors,” said an official from the Tavoy District Peace and Development Council (PDC). “Currently, officials from the Ministry of Labor and the Tavoy PDC are mediating between the protesters and the company.”
However, an official from the project said that the workers signed a work contract that included the daily payment amount and working hours before their appointments. The official explained that most of the workers have worked in Thailand before and knew the payment and work environment in Thailand.
The average hourly wage for laborers working on the Tavoy project is between 3,500 and 5,000 Kyat. When the deep-sea port project began, Burmese workers expected to get the same daily wage they would be paid in Thailand, but the Thai company ended up paying a lower rate, said some Tavoy residents.
“The protest workers are not showing up at their road and bridge construction sites, leaving Thai workers to continue the construction alone,” said an official working on the project.
In addition, some Burmese engineers quit their jobs after working only a few days due to bad working conditions.
“We were not provided any proper bed and had to sleep on the concrete floor with a bamboo mat,” said a Tavoy native who worked as an engineer on the project.
The strike will not affect Burma’s ability to attract international investors because investors know that Burma has millions of cheap laborers available, said a Burmese economist in Rangoon.
“The investors see not only the availability of cheap labor, but also the advantages of the geographical setting and a good infrastructure,” said the economist. “As there is no rigid regulation on the natural environment in Burma, this will attract the investors.”
According to True News, a local news journal, the construction project expected to employ about 6,000 workers during the first five years. Currently, road construction is the project’s top priority.
Thailand and Burmese officials signed an agreement in November for the establishment of the Tavoy deep-sea port and related special economic zone, which junta chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe expects to become another Shenzhen, the most successful special economic zone in China.