MANDALAY — Local trainees at the Chinese company working on the highly controversial Letpadaung copper mining project in central Burma are protesting for higher wages and better working conditions.
The massive project in Sagaing Division—a joint venture between Chinese firm Wanbao and Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd, a Burmese military company—has been hit by widespread protests from locals displaced by the project and activists concerned about its environmental and social impacts. Work resumed in November after a stoppage, which saw a parliamentary investigation into the project and led to profit-sharing terms being revised to give the Burmese government a larger stake.
On Thursday, 224 local trainees from 26 villages in the Letpadaung area staged a protest along the main road leading up to Wanbao’s office.
The trainees, who have been receiving training for more than five months, carried placards and shouted slogans demanding proper workers’ rights. The young trainees come from families who had land confiscated to make way for the sprawling mine.
“Our salary is lower than the janitors,” said Phyo Nyi Htwe, one of the trainees on strike.
“Our work is mainly menial work such as sprinkling acid over the soil. We are not fully provided with good equipment to protect ourselves from the acid.”
Wanbao took on the trainees as part of its agreement to provide more job opportunities for locals.
Under the terms of the trainee program, they will later have the opportunity of becoming fully employed by Wanbao. In the meantime, however, they are paid just US$120 per month.
The trainees told The Irrawaddy that most are university graduates, and that they had demanded their wages be doubled, but the company refused.
“We’ve asked the company and they said they would negotiate, but they failed to do so. That’s why we went out on the street to show them what we want,” said another trainee, who declined to be named.
The striking trainees will demonstrate again on Friday, and are demanding a meeting with management to settle the dispute before work begins again after next week’s Thingyan holiday.
“If they do not agree to increase the payment, all of us will quit our jobs,” the trainee said.
A Wanbao representative insisted that the company had provided all necessary safety equipment and a suitable salary for trainees.
“We’ve provided them with what they deserved,” said Myint Thein, the company’s administrative manager.
“It would be more appropriate to complain if they were permanent workers, but we will think about it. Since they are just the trainees, not yet employees of ours and they are not skilled yet, it is hard for us to increase their pay level.”
He said the workers appeared not to appreciate that they were not yet full employees of Wanbao.
“We have no intention to oppress them with the lower salary. I think there is some misunderstanding about the term ‘trainee’ and I think someone is stirring up problems without understanding the nature of their employment,” he said.
He said the trainees would have to complete a test in order to become permanent staff, and then they would be entitled to higher pay.
“We will provide a better salary to whoever passes the test to become a permanent worker. The pay level will vary, depending on their skill as well,” he said. “We will, however, negotiate with the protesting trainees for a positive result.”