The 1941 Yangon Sawmill Workers’ Strike: Part 1

In early March, 1941, a Tamil labourer called Madaya was told by the European manager of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation’s Sawmill at Dunneedaw on the Yangon docks, that he had to change his job to a more physically demanding role. Madaya, with a confidence that had grown among workers in the city since the 1930s, refused unless his extra efforts were rewarded by an increase in his pay. As a result he was summarily dismissed for disobedience of orders. On March 8 the workers at the sawmill struck, demanding that Madaya be reinstated to his original post.

In the context of global war and collapsing empires, this may seem like an innocuous and inconsequential event to focus on. The firebrand Burmese nationalist, Aung San, had returned to Myanmar from fascist Japan just weeks before the strike action. He would go back again for military training with more young revolutionaries in the following months. This was part of the prelude to Japan’s devastating expansion into Southeast Asia in the closing months of 1941. And the British Empire and its allies were on the defensive globally. In Europe, the Axis powers occupied France, establishing the Vichy Regime. The Luftwaffe was bombing Britain. War raged between British and Italian forces across North and East Africa and the Balkans. Still in a pact, the Soviet Union had not yet been attacked by German forces, but Nazi plans for an invasion were being made.

Situating the Yangon sawmill workers’ strike in this bigger picture, it becomes small and insignificant. But for the workers, indebted to labour recruiters, living in squalid and overcrowded housing in the mill, and paid wages that—even by the Corporation’s calculations—barely covered the costs of subsistence, by taking this action they had put their livelihoods at stake. It is difficult to capture how this strike felt. Not only are sources produced by the workers’ themselves scant, the nature of historical writing struggles to capture how this strike was experienced. Part of the difficulty is how time is compressed in our writing. Even if an entire journal article were dedicated to this strike, it will be consumed by a reader in under an hour. A few months of protracted struggle becomes a few minutes.

Almost exactly 77 years on from the start of this Yangon sawmill workers’ strike, and the University and College Union representing university staff in the UK are out on the longest strike that the Higher Education Sector has ever seen. We are taking this action to defend our pensions. The global context is turbulent and overwhelming. Devastating wars and civilian suffering in Syria and Yemen. Ethnic cleansing on the border of Myanmar and Bangladesh. Another mass shooting in the US. And, on a national scale, the uncertainty of Brexit. But to those of us on strike, it has been an almost all-consuming event.

By bringing these two events together I am not suggesting a link between these two strikes. Nor do I think that they are comparable in any particularly meaningful way. Rather, I’m suggesting that as historians we might reflect on our experiences to better inform how we write about the experiences of others (without claiming to have any privileged access to these experiences or any special ability to represent them authentically). One aspect of this is the passing of time, something that the format of a blog can convey. Over the next few weeks, on the days when I am not on strike, I will use this blog to post updates on the sawmill workers’ strike in “real time”, along side developments in our own dispute. Why? Because everyday that a worker withdraws their labour and goes without pay is felt.

Sawmill Workers in Yangon c.1940  © London Metropolitan Archives cc-by-nc_icon-svg

One Comment Add yours

  1. Patsy Evans says:

    Jonothan – Thank you for this article. The CEO at the Sawmill in 1941 was Mr. Bruce, Rodney Drake was General Manager, Mr. Hilton was Engineer and my Father JACK DYER was Assist. Manager. I am just writing a book of my fathers life in Burma, the trek out then after the war and coming to Australia just days before Independence January 1948. I look forward to Part 2.
    Thank you. I have not been able to see any photos of the sawmill except what my Dad had of the logs floating down into the mill yard.

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