Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Oil field strikes in colonial Burma

This post presents a translation of a passage about the colonial era oil field strikes in Myanmar, taken from page 10 of the April 2012 issue of the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association newspaper. This text originally appeared in Yebaw (Comrade) Htun Oo's book The emergence of the working class in Burma and the history of working class activism. The portrait at the top of the page is of Thakin Po Hla Gyi (as represented on the 45 kyat note).


The emergence of the working class in Burma and the history of working class activism

The start of the oil field strikes

During the colonial era all of Myanmar's oil industry was under the control of the BOC Oil Company.

In order to drill and extract the oil cheaply [the BOC] hired American oil drilling workers on contract. Those workers joined with Myanmar workers and gave them practical training. When the American workers were negotiating a new contract they demanded some of the labour rights that they deserved. Included, for example, were a) bonus pay, b) a general provident fund, and c) an increase in salary and living standard (housing, domestic workers and transportation).

Due to those demands [the American workers] got into a conflict with the company. The company did not sign a new contract with the American workers and planed [instead] to sign a contract with Scottish workers. The American workers were displeased and in 1916-1917 about 500 American workers took part in a strike. Because of the American workers' solidarity the BOC had to accede to their demands.

The American workers' strike was the first strike in the history of workers strikes in Burma. The essential lesson that can be drawn from that practical struggle is the principle of class conflict according to which workers are victorious over capitalists due to striking with solidarity. Starting from that time the oil field workers' strikes occurred yearly without cessation.

In 1918, the company's clerical workers' went on strike for the recognition of their right to not have daily deductions taken from their salary. That strike was unsuccessful. The reasons were that among the clerks who went on strike there was no solidarity, there was not much organising, the experience of the leadership was young, and the strikers were not able to endure the employer's threats.

In December 1920, about 8,000 workers from the Salween oil refinery and wax factory went on strike for a wage increase. In that strike [the employer] gave a wage increase of 10 per cent. [The workers] did not get their other demands. Although [the failure to get their other demands] was due to a low level of workers' solidarity, [that strike] helped support future strikes.

In 1921, with the leadership of U Myo Nyunt (oil field) and U Ba Thi (Amarapura) an oil field workers association (labour union) was established in the oil field.

In 1923, with the leadership of the oil field workers, about 2,000 workers issued six demands. [The workers] issued [the following] demands and went on strike.

1) Increase the wage
2) Build housing for the workers or provide a housing allowance
3) Instal public waterworks in the workers' quarter and at the oil fields
4) Put an end to corruption among company officials
5) Reinstate those who had been fired
6) Reduce the capitation tax

In 1925, about 2,500 stevedores at the Yangon habour went on strike demanding a wage increase, an end to the corruption of government officials, and the eradication of exploitation by collie leaders. That strike was aided by a support strike of over 15,000 rickshaw workers, porters, lumber mill workers, rice mill workers, and Indian train loading workers. Getting only a slight modification of wages, the other demands were not met.

In August 1925, about 3,000 workers from the Irrawaddy (domestic river travel company) went on strike demanding a wage increase. The strike lasted five months. At that time [the Indian workers] were replaced with Burman workers. The strike was unsuccessful. The striking workers were mostly Indians. Due to that strike ethnic hatred increased.

In February 1926, over 4,000 BOC workers in Yenan-gyaung town went on strike again with the leadership of the great oil field workers association. It lasted over three weeks. [The workers] were harassed by the Labour Bureau (worker protection department). [The company] joined up with those bureaucrat lackeys. The workers violently resisted the harassment of those bureaucrats' by setting fire to the oil wells and ambushing and attacking those bureaucrat lackeys.

Due to that strike, the workers gained an increase of some of their rights.

In 1930, another strike of stevedore workers occurred at the Yangon harbour. At that time the habour workers were mostly Indian workers. They have to work 12 hours per day. The wage was only 1 to 8 kyat per day. They worked only about 10-12 days per month. A worker' monthly income was only 15 kyat to 18 kyat. And collie leaders still took deductions from that monthly income. The workers were lent money at a high interest rate. Due to those financial penalties about 5,000 workers went on strike. They demanded a wage increase of two kyat, an end to the system of collie leaders' authority, and transparent payment of wages directly workers once a month. The strike lasted two weeks.

At that time, due to the impact of the 1929 world economic crisis farmers in Burma suffered unbearably from the fall in the rice price to the point where they had to give up their farm fields. It was a period in which [farmers] experienced the misfortune of becoming property-less and having to work in the city. With the harbour workers strike, the striking workers were replaced with Burman workers. In the end the worker strike was unable to remain firm and was settled with a daily wage of 1 kyat, 13 annas. Under the imperialist capitalists unemployment rose and conflict emerged among workers in the labour market.

In May 1930, the Indo-Burman riot emerged due to that situation [of worker conflict].

Yearly from 1920 to 30 strikes took place in important industries.

During 1931-36, an average of four strikes took place per year, lasting [on average] about three weeks.

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