This piece is Part 2 in a three-part series focusing on under-analysed aspects of the Dawei deep-sea port and industrial zone project in southeastern Burma. See here for Part 1, an analysis of the activities of Italian-Thai Development, the project’s lead developer. Part 3, which will focus on women’s and gender issues in Dawei, is forthcoming.
At first glance, a labour analysis of the Dawei deep-sea port and industrial zone project may seem counterintuitive. To date, critical readings of the project have focused mainly on environmental impacts, displacement and relocation of local people, the marginalization of local voices, and in a wider perspective, the concern that the majority of project benefits will accrue to Thailand rather than Burma, signalling Burma’s rather disadvantageous entry into regional and sub-regional infrastructure networks. These lines of analysis are fruitful and will remain as such. That labour has been absent from them is not, per se, a problem thus far.
Further, early claims that the project would generate substantial job opportunities seem to have faded. ‘We need tons of workers,’ said Premchai Karnasuta in late 2010, when his company secured the project concession. ‘We will mobilize millions of Burmese’ (IHT 2010). Premchai is president of Italian-Thai Development (ITD), Thailand’s largest construction company and the project’s lead developer. Yet almost two years later, the project-specific labour force in Dawei does not approach even the more moderate estimate of ‘tens of thousands’ of workers said (in 2010) to be necessary for the project’s first five years. Instead, Dawei-area activists and community leaders[i] say that the project’s current labour force consists mainly of a relatively small number of migrant workers: about 800 Thai workers and 600 migrant workers from upper Burma. Even when (or if) the project reaches projected capacity some ten to fifteen years from now, the emphasis in the industrial zone is on heavy industry, not medium or light manufacturing industries that would be more labour-intensive. Though China’s much-vaunted Shenzhen special economic zone (SEZ) is considered a model of sorts for the Dawei project, there are no plans for the latter to involve manufacturing or export processing in a way that would require the vast labour force of Shenzhen or other SEZs elsewhere in Asia.
Thus labour analyses of the Dawei project have yet to gather momentum, despite some limited discussion in some circles.[ii] However, reading Dawei through a labour lens does enable some important shifts in perspective, chief among them its ability to underline a particular set of very tangible impacts – namely employment arrangements – for people in and around the Dawei project area, including the road link to Thailand. Following Tania Li’s work on the intersection of land and labour issues, a labour perspective offers added analytical value at two scales: locally, it ‘highlights the jobs generated, and the rewards received’ by communities where large-scale investment takes place; and more broadly, it ‘highlights the predicament of people whose labor is not needed by the global capitalist system,’ as the ‘anticipated transition from farm to factory’ has ceased to be a viable promise in most parts of the global South (Li 2011: 281).
In and around the Dawei area, the labour profile of the project can be broken into at least four main strands:
a) Migrant workers, currently said to consist of about 800 Thai workers and 600 workers from upper Burma
b) Local workers, i.e. workers from the Dawei area, working likely for project sub-contractors or on a temporary/casual basis for specific tasks, e.g. clearing land for project facilities or the road link
c) Informal economy workers, who while not directly attached to project contractors or sub-contractors, may supply secondary services or goods such as selling basic consumption products at ITD worker camps, or other forms of uncontracted labour that relates to the project (e.g. waste collection and disposal)
d) Rural farmers and villagers, whose work as smallholder farmers, plantation workers, and landless peasants will undergo changes with increasing investment in the area
There is, to be sure, considerable overlap between categories B, C, and D, and to some degree A and C. For example, to the extent that rural villagers have seen any employment opportunities generated by the project thus far, they have been enlisted for basic labour-intensive tasks like clearing land for the road link project and in the industrial zone area. As for agricultural labour, traditional workforce statistics tend to calculate labour forces – e.g. on a national scale – by referring to ‘non-agricultural labour’. However, scholars and activists have, in recent years, highlighted how changes in rural areas have swelled the ranks of certain labour forces, especially in informal economies, as agricultural investment trends have shifted towards labour-shedding technologies that dispossess farmers of their land, driving the creation of a landless peasant class and out-migration from rural areas. As a result, the classical juxtaposition of workers and farmers, as with the more fundamental opposition of the urban and the rural as analytical categories, has become tenuous at best. Instead, cross-sectoral alliances between different types of workers, urban and rural as well as formal and informal, have become central to organizing efforts. In its very explicit combination of road infrastructure through remote highland areas and a large-scale waterfront industrial zone, the Dawei project also highlights the need for an approach that brings together agricultural and industrial labour perspectives.
Activists and community leaders in the Dawei area have emphasized the centrality of migrant labour, both Thai and from upper Burma, to current early-stage implementation activities. Living mostly in ITD worker camps along the road link route and in and around the industrial zone area, these workers are involved in labour-intensive tasks like road construction, the building of the camps themselves, construction of company and project facilities like the ITD project headquarters in the industrial zone area, and relocation sites like the Bawah site on the north end of the industrial zone area. Compared to workers from upper Burma, Thai workers are said to have higher wages and more secure contracts, and sensitive relationships with local communities – especially in remote road link camps where Thai workers have uneasy interactions with Karen villagers, to whose village centres and shops Thai workers come for simple consumption goods, for food, and sometimes for alcohol. Still, Thai workers’ wages are mostly lower than the new Thai minimum wage, which has been a source of discontent, and Thai workers have expressed dissatisfaction with their working and living conditions in the project area, leading to some criticism of ITD in the Thai press. Workers from upper Burma have also voiced dissatisfaction over wages that are both lower than the Thai minimum, and lower than normal wages in the Dawei area. In fact, contrary to expectations, local activists say they have not seen the emergence of a clear project labour hierarchy pitting Thai workers at the top and workers from Burma (local and migrant) at the bottom. While a relatively small management coterie does exist, and it does consist largely of Thai workers, remaining project workers – that is, the vast majority of workers associated with the project – apparently face similar conditions of exploitation, regardless of where they come from.
While the situation of migrant worker communities appears reasonably well known, it is difficult to say the same of local workers and informal economy workers. Local workers from Dawei township itself largely engage and disengage with project activities through the work of the project’s many local sub-contractors, while local villagers are brought in as casual and temporary workers to clear land for the road link and the industrial zone site. This is a shifting workforce, varying by site and from week to week, day to day. Less has been said thus far of informal economy workers, though those who engage in work related to the project are likely to increase as worker camps become better established and larger. Meanwhile the wider question of informal labour applies to almost all workers who interface with the project, insofar as full-time, secure employment arrangements have been reserved only for a relatively small group of management-level ITD employees. In addition, as economic land concessions increase around the road link route and the industrial zone area, more smallholder farmers will be forced to move into largely insecure and precarious employment arrangements, either as workers in the informal sector or as landless labourers on larger-scale plantations and contract farms.
On the level of jobs generated and rewards received – that is, at the first of Tania Li’s two scales – the Dawei project, even just from a labour perspective, can be said to have brought few if any benefits to workers involved (directly and indirectly) with the project. Instead, the prevailing dynamic is a combination of outright expulsion and adverse incorporation of local people and migrant labour. As a reorganization of production, this situation is much in line with high-modernist agrarian transition and industrialization processes elsewhere. Ben White et al gloss the issue as follows: ‘Contemporary forms of agrarian transition involve investments and dispossession that expel people from agriculture without absorbing their labour in manufactures or elsewhere in the economy, and create an “agrarian question of labour” involving large “surplus populations” of the dispossessed’ (White et al 2012: 624). Li’s second scale, regarding the situation of people and communities whose labour power is systematically foreclosed upon by dominant trends in global capitalism, enters here.
In many ways the Dawei project represents a classical study in the labour-shedding dynamics of large-scale SEZs and infrastructure projects, which in expelling peasants from land and providing limited and unfavourable employment prospects produce reserves, sometimes vast, of under- or non-integrated labour – de facto ‘surplus populations’. In Dawei, estimates of displaced people often exceed 20,000, but little if any of this labour will be incorporated in the industrial zone elements of the project, which focus on heavy and medium industries, while employment prospects along the road link and in plantations and/or contract farms are unlikely to absorb all of this newly precarious labour force. Further, capital flows – such as those gathering in Dawei – have been shown to move in search of flexible, informalized labour, ‘leading to the systematic establishment of anti-labour regimes to lock in comparative advantages based on cheaper, more manageable labour’ (AMRC 2011: 3). So even that labour that is absorbed through the project, directly or indirectly, is likely to be highly unfavourable. Dawei, in this sense, reflects a broader erosion of labour standards in Asia.
SEZs have been a key vehicle for this erosion process. In Dennis Arnold’s useful four-phase narration of SEZ development in Asia, SEZs have moved from being – through the provision of cheap and flexible labour and various kinds of tax incentives – basic FDI-capturing mechanisms for newly export-oriented Tiger economies in East Asia (in the first and second phases), to being outright vehicles for territorial consolidation and capital accumulation (in the third and fourth phases) (Arnold 2010, cited in Wulandari n/d: 7-8). These latter stages involve the state’s re-entry as a formidable actor in and against transnational capital flows, with states using SEZs to concentrate production activities and certain services, while setting up SEZs as nodes in wider infrastructure networks. Dawei, although not providing for labour-intensive production, nevertheless fits well as a latter-phase SEZ, linking up coastal industrial and logistics activities with an extensive overland trade network to Bangkok and beyond.
Dawei, of course, is not the only major industrial initiative in Burma. With 23 industrial zones in and around Rangoon, 18 industrial zones elsewhere (mostly in other central lowland and coastal areas), and two other SEZs ‘proper’ (in Kyaukphyu and Thilawa) (cf. Zaw and Kudo 2011), Burma is much in line with the regional trend of using SEZs and industrial zones as vehicles for capital accumulation. As strategies through which state and capital produce ‘market-adjustable’ societies, SEZs can be seen to represent two theories developed by David Harvey: accumulation by dispossession, and the spatio-temporal fix (cf. Harvey 2003). In short, capitalism at the frontier tends to involve the seizure of assets – notably land, labour, and natural resources – from populations rendered surplus, while capital must be ‘fixed’ in time and space – particularly through physical infrastructure like roads – in order for accumulation at the periphery to be transferred to the core.[iii]
These dynamics are alive and well in Burma. Dawei is one case among many. Border trade zones, such as the long-discussed economic zone near Myawaddy, link closely to these trends; the much-publicized land dispute for the industrial park in Mingaladon fits in here as well; and to some extent the Kyaukphyu and Thilawa SEZs could be good further case studies. Moving beyond SEZs and industrial zones, the picture becomes even more crowded. In Burma’s highlands, new land legislation renders vast tracts of swidden-cultivated land ripe for land grabs, while the National Human Rights Commission has said that, of the 30 or so complaints they field daily, a majority are land-related. Or put differently: at Tania Li’s second scale, it is clear that capital accumulation trends in Burma are creating a critical situation for those farmers and peasants whose labour, by the new rules of the game in Burma, is no longer needed.
For many international NGOs and civil society actors in Burma, the default response to challenges like this has been essentially top-down: a combination of policy work, and engagement with the government and private sector. Refreshingly, the response in Dawei has been far more bottom-up, as local NGOs and related networks have understood, first, the strategic value of local-level organizing; and then they have brought the fruits of those organizing efforts, in the form of targeted demands – backed by groundswells of community sentiment – to the doorsteps of state and capital. This approach is the essence of effective, multilevel community action. Organizations working elsewhere in Burma, and indeed in many other countries as well, could learn a great deal from the response in Dawei.
However, activists and community leaders in the Dawei area have yet to seriously work on labour issues. And certainly, the obstacles are many. Worker camps tend to be isolated and they’re often remote, there are a number of languages in play, issues between local people and migrant workers are sensitive (as is often the case), and the power differential between capital and labour could hardly be higher. More practically, labour rights work in Burma, despite a rich history extending back to the colonial era and the early independence period, has probably returned to a stage that could generously be called nascent, despite a great deal of labour activity in Rangoon-area industrial zones and among farmers and peasants in the countryside. Given limited institutional experience in the relevant corners of contemporary civil society, it is likely that little may happen unless workers themselves begin turning their grievances into action.
Counterintuitively, perhaps, this latter possibility may be the most encouraging: self-organized workers taking the situation into their own hands. Imagine cross-sector alliances between dispossessed peasants and exploited construction workers; imagine linkages between disaffected Thai workers and migrant Burmese workers. The potential is less remote than one might think. In recent years, many grassroots social movements across Southeast Asia have begun to take seriously the need to organize across sectoral divides from a labour perspective, in order to reimagine collective bargaining in contexts where conventional trade union approaches no longer apply (cf. AMRC 2012). Results have been mixed; much progress remains to be made. In particular, there has been a great deal of discussion around how to create spaces for cross- and multi-sectoral organizing – through media, through community centres, through mobile informal exchanges, etc. Opinions vary, but at a recent conference in Bangkok, for example, participants stressed that work of this kind is unlikely to be successful unless workers themselves are already organizing on the ground. Indeed, experienced labour activists argue that solidarity emerges in the course of workers’ struggles, rather than being produced or imposed a priori through external interventions (cf. Campbell 2012 [forthcoming]). In this context, the role of civil society organizations becomes that of strengthening, sustaining, and linking these struggles.
In other words, no shortcuts – just the daily hard work of local-level organizing and alliance-building, with ears to the ground. Thailand-based groups that work with migrant workers from Burma would do well to assist in this work, in Dawei and elsewhere in the country, as these organizations know what it means to open up spaces for organizing in difficult conditions. Admittedly the need for a labour-based approach in Dawei remains largely unrecognized; labour issues are considered peripheral to other approaches thus far. But as a project that remains, for now at least, something of a showpiece initiative for Burma’s liberalization process, Dawei may well set standards for years to come. It could also be read as a harbinger of sorts, a sign or symbol of broader trends in the region. The processes that Dawei represents – informalization of labour, expulsion of rural communities from their land, degradation of labour standards, the production of new surplus communities at the periphery of global capitalism – are signs of dark days to come for working people, in Burma as elsewhere. While the project is still relatively labour-intensive, now is the time for labour mobilization. With the stature of the project still intact, the repercussions could be tremendous.
Soe Lin Aung is a researcher and consultant based in Rangoon. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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[i] I have not explicitly sought nor gained permission to give the names of specific organizations or individuals in this series, so given remaining sensitivities and security concerns for local activists and organizations working in the Dawei area, here and elsewhere in this series I will not reveal full names or titles of individuals and organizations.
[ii] One of the main Dawei-area activists has spoken of plans to bring in Rangoon-based labour leaders to establish contact with workers in project camps, but timing and details were unclear. The issue is clearly seen as secondary at best to a host of other approaches: environmental, economic, land-related, etc.
[iii] Researchers and scholars have connected both theories to SEZ initiatives and labour informalization in Southeast Asia. See, for example, Arnold and Aung 2011, and Wulandari nd.