Vol 11. No. 1, January-February 2003
Shoring up Burmaís Seamen
From inside Burma, a job at sea might seem like a good career move, but many Burmese seamen are finding the voyage anything but smooth sailing.
By Ko Thet
When the Seafarers Union of Burma (SUB) and the Port Authority of Thailand Workers Union conducted a check of ships harbored in Bangkok last October, they found 18 Burmese crewmembers on board a Taiwanese vessel named the Timber Star with salaries well below International Labor Organization (ILO) standards.
"The ILO minimal standard wage is US $581 a month for a seaman," says Aung Thura, SUBís assistant general secretary. "On the Timber Star the basic salary is $240, but from that, agents take an extra $100 to $150 for themselves," he adds. According to Aung Thura, three men on board the Timber Star took home only $50 a month.
"When we found out that the crew members werenít getting ILO standard salaries, we asked the shipís owner to pay them in full. But the ship had already left the port," he explains. The SUB is now calling on members from other affiliates of the International Transport Workersí Federation (ITF) to join in an international strike against the owner of the Timber Star.
For many Burmese seamen, troubles start well before they set sail. To apply in the first place, seamen need an appointment letter from the Seamen Employment Control Division (SECD), a junta-controlled agency under the Department of Marine Administration (DMA) based in Rangoon. The SECD demands 1.5 million kyat (roughly $1,500) for an appointment letter, which is necessary to apply for a passport and a seamanís license, with constant discharge certificates (CDC). The entire application process can take anywhere between six and 12 months.
The SECD keeps a close eye on all seamen. Before leaving Burma, division officers brief them to warn them against making contact with the ITF, the SUB and any other organization. Before Oct 1993, seamen were required to sign a contract stipulating they have no contact or involvement with external groups or organizations. Now that Burma is an ILO member, there are no forms to sign, but the order is still made perfectly clear.
The SECD forces all seamen to become members of the Myanmar Overseas Seafarers Association (MOSA), an organization the junta created in April last year to counter the SUB. It was founded as an NGO and a "union" but has made no real effort to hide its links to the ruling military regime or the SECD. It has even applied to join the ITF, but bosses in the federationís London headquarters refused MOSAís membership and continue to support the SUB.
Exiled in the Thai capital, the SUB has called on Burma to fully implement ILO standards, including freedom of association and freedom to organize, as prescribed in Convention 87. Burma joined the ILO in 1948 and is a signatory to over 20 conventions including the Seamenís Articles of Agreement, but this translates to little for Burmese workers at sea.
In 1998, a SUB official, U Khin Kyaw, was arrested at Rangoon airport on arrival from Thailand. The junta accused him of collaborating with "overseas anti-government activists and advocates of destruction within the country" and bringing in illegal money for the opposition National League for Democracy. U Khin Kyaw remains in prison, serving a 17-year sentence and is reportedly in poor health, with many concerned he is being mistreated.
Despite several setbacks, the SUB continues to work to protect Burmese workers at sea. Labor is in high demand at sea, and in the past, foreign shipping companies have taken advantage of eager Burmese seamen. In reported cases in 2000, a Greek shipping company, Kapelco, and a Panama-based company, Metrix, both hired Burmese workers and then refused to hold all or portions of the seamenís salary. But even with internationally agreed standards, Burmese seamen continue to fall victim to exploitation.
The problem for many seamen is not just with the shipping companies, but with recruiting agents based in and out of Burma. On top of the initial fees seamen have to pay the SECD for the appointment letter, passport and license in Rangoon, agents will extort anything up to $1500 in extra charges before seamen set sail with a shipping company.
To pay for the high agency fees, most seamen have to borrow large sums of money before they apply. Aung Win, 34, is an engineer with a degree from Rangoon Institute of Technology. "I pawned my parentsí land in Rangoon for two million kyat to apply for the CDC and then left for Singapore in 1997. When I arrived in Singapore, I only had $500," Aung Win said.
"The money was not enough. I still had to pay the broker $1,200, so I had to ask my parents again for more money," he said.
"When I gave $1,200 to my broker, I got a job on a cargo ship. At that time, my salary was only $350 a month but after three months on the ship, the company just decided to replace me," Aung Win explained. Now Aung Win is working illegally in Bangkok and is too scared to return home because of the shame he expects from his family back in Burma.
Stories like Aung Winís are common for seamen in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand who find themselves abandoned, poor and jobless in foreign ports. Because so many seamen end up stranded on the port at Bangkok, one man referred to Bangkok as a cemetery for Burmese seamen.
Burma-based agents, and the junta in its facilitation of such schemes through the SECD and MOSA, are clearly working outside standards set by the ILO. But as the union movement is confined to exile, it is all but powerless to stand up to operators inside Burma. [Top]