Ohn Than hold a  photo of her husband, Kyaw Kyaw, who collapsed and died at Niskikawa Cooper in Fort Wayn in 2016. Staff photo by Rachel Von
Ohn Than hold a  photo of her husband, Kyaw Kyaw, who collapsed and died at Niskikawa Cooper in Fort Wayn in 2016. Staff photo by Rachel Von
Tuesday marked the third anniversary of the death of a local Burmese worker – and the birth of a local worker movement.

Kyaw Kyaw, pronounced “Jaw Jaw,” collapsed and died Feb. 19, 2016 during his shift at Nishikawa Cooper's Fort Wayne plant.

Some co-workers believe Kyaw Kyaw suffered unfair treatment by plant supervisors, who doubted his physical distress and waited two hours after he became ill before calling an ambulance. They also believe Burmese refugees are being recruited and targeted for abuse because of their nationality.

About three dozen local Burmese have banded together to fight for their rights with the assistance of David Frank, a local civil rights attorney.

Tom Lewandowski, a community organizer and executive director of the Workers' Project, and others within the local labor community are supporting the group.

Not all members of the group are current or former Nishikawa Cooper employees, but those who are have taken formal action against the company. Frank represents 21 Burmese workers who have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sparking an investigation that could take six months – or longer, he said.

Among their requests are a safe working environment and to be treated with dignity and respect.

The complaint is working its way through the commission's mediation process. If that fails, the workers plan to file a class-action lawsuit alleging systematic discrimination.

Mark Kittaka, the local attorney representing Nisco, as the company is called, provided a statement from the company. Although officials declined to comment on specific allegation in the pending EEOC claim, they outline some management guidelines.

Among those, they said, is uniform adherence to work rules “regardless of race or national origin.” Nisco also respects “all other (worker) rights protected under Title VII.” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion.

Burmese seen as vulnerable group

Political refugees tend to be hardworking people with limited English-language skills, Frank said.

It's relatively easy, he said, for an employer to take advantage of the Burmese, especially because the legal refugees lived under a regime where those who spoke out against authority suffered severe consequences, including imprisonment.

The country now called Myanmar was known as Burma when many of the workers fled the fighting there. About 6,000 Burmese refugees and immigrants, who now call Fort Wayne home, identify themselves by the country's former name.

Burmese refugees have a limited understanding of workers' rights and don't know whom they can trust, Frank said. But they have entered the U.S. legally and can work here.

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