“We want the brands to know that the workers are forced by the factory to say good words when they contact the workers. We want the brands to know the reality on the ground.”
A garment worker at the Huabo Times factory in Myanmar issued this request in March, more than a year into the country’s military dictatorship, which began with a coup on February 1, 2021. The worker spoke about desperate times for word-of-mouth workers. harassment and abuse, not having time to use the toilet because of the impossible targets set by the factories.
Fast forward a few months and the world watched in horror as Myanmar’s military executed four pro-democracy activists in the country’s first use of the death penalty in more than three decades – marking a deadly escalating state repression in the 18 months since Myanmar’s military illegally seized. power. The killings followed a series of brutal – and often deadly – attacks on opponents of the military regime.
It is a struggle in which garment workers play a frontline role. Since the beginning of the coup, at least 55 trade union activists have been killed and more than 300 union leaders and members of the labor movement have been arrested. Almost all union leaders were forced into hiding, while those still working in the factories were effectively silenced for real fear of repercussions. Due to severe restrictions on civil liberties and reporting under military rule, it is almost impossible to get a clear picture of the reality on the ground.
Since the military takeover, the London-based Business & Human Rights Resource Center has monitored a significant increase in labor and human rights abuses among garment workers in Myanmar. Together with partners and allies, at home and abroad, we have tracked more than 100 cases of alleged abuse against at least 60,800 garment workers in just 18 months. There is no question that widespread and systematic labor violations occur in Myanmar’s fashion supply chains. These allegations are linked to factories that supply some of our favorite fashion brands such as H&M, GUESS, Inditex (Zara & Bershka), Next and Primark, raising serious concerns about who suffer from making clothes in our closet.
The cases we have recorded paint a grim picture. More than half involved wage theft (55 cases), while other common violations included abusive wages and mandatory overtime (35 cases), attacks on freedom of association (31 cases), and gender-based violence and harassment (28 cases). We also recorded the killing of seven military personnel and security forces, as well as the arbitrary arrest and detention of at least 29 workers.
Several of the allegations of abuse involved violent repression of union leaders and workers. On April 20 this year, two women’s union activists were brutally attacked and arrested by six soldiers after participating in a protest against the military regime in Yangon. On their way home, a military vehicle crashed into their taxi before the soldiers beat the two women, loaded them and the taxi driver into their vehicle, and took them to an interrogation center.
In another incident a year ago, six workers – including a female union leader – from Xing Jia Footwear were shot and killed by the military and police after workers gathered outside the factory to demand wages. wages payable. Several workers were arrested and three were sentenced by a military court to three years in prison on what rights groups said were unfounded charges.
Many cases of abuse are alleged to have been committed directly by the brand’s factory suppliers, or by the military in collusion with the suppliers. Workers and unions suspect business-military collaboration in 15 percent of recorded cases, although the number could be higher because garment factory management and the armed forces appear to be closely linked. The military raided factories to arrest workers they suspected of taking part in anti-coup protests, and factories shared lists of union leaders with the junta, according to unions. The military also conducted door-to-door searches of workplaces, hostels and homes. Since garment workers are on the frontline of the country’s civil disobedience movement to demand the end of the dictatorship and the restoration of democracy in Myanmar, these alleged abuses are likely just the tip of the iceberg.
In the face of this ongoing, and often violent, repression, many local and international unions have called on international brands to withdraw from Myanmar until democracy is restored.
There are definite risks associated with brands leaving Myanmar. The country’s garment sector employs about 700,000 people. If orders dry up and factories close, these workers, 90 percent of whom are women, will lose their jobs. Many will be vulnerable amid the crisis of conflict and economic instability. According to Save the Children, families in Myanmar have lost on average more than half of their income since February 2021 and a third of households rely on help from others to survive.
However, some labor groups argue that brands that remain effectively put profits ahead of human rights. Garment workers today earn less than $2 a day – far less than they need to survive. Factories took advantage of the dictatorship to restore workers’ rights and protections that unions had fought for for the past two decades.
The Resource Center has invited 33 brands, all of which reportedly come from factories in Myanmar with documented abuses, to respond to the allegations. Of the 23 brands that responded, the majority (16) emphasized their policy commitments to protect the human rights of workers in their supply chains, including conducting human rights due diligence. Despite these commitments, most of the cases of alleged abuses in the brands’ supply chains remain unsolved, showing a gap between the company’s commitments and the reality of factories. This raises questions as to whether it is possible for brands to perform effectively due to diligence in the current situation.
Significantly, 17 brands said they had started their own investigation into the allegations. And seven brands – including C&A, H&M, Lidl, Next, and Primark – have outlined the actions they have taken to ensure a solution for affected workers, a critical step in making any corporate commitment a reality. of human rights. But more than a third (nine) of brands point to findings from social audits or their own interviews with suppliers to refute allegations, without direct engagement with unions or workers, which is essential for effective worker engagement. It is also worrying for the future of the sector in Myanmar.
The reality is that as long as the dictatorship continues, it seems that the situation for labor rights – and more broadly human rights – will only continue to deteriorate.
“We are working hard to protect jobs and workers’ rights,” said Khaing Zar, President of the Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar. “But… we see that the military dictatorship has not disappeared… It is important that we contribute to their immediate and permanent defeat… it is our moral duty to make difficult decisions that will reduce the suffering of our people.”
These circumstances raise serious questions for brands that continue to source from Myanmar, and their investors, about their ability to do so responsibly and ensure the protection of workers in their supply chains. At the very least, they should do the ongoing, heightened human rights due diligence required to operate in an active conflict zone. But it is more difficult for brands to achieve real management of the conditions of their supplier factories and to ensure compliance with their own, and international, standards, and obligations.
What is clear now is that brands need to wake up to the harsh reality that continuing business as usual is not an option in Myanmar. And if due diligence cannot be done, or where it leads to the conclusion that the protection of workers’ rights is not possible, a responsible exit strategy – in consultation with unions and workers themselves – should be considered. Now is the time for brands, and the world, to stand with those who ensure the profits of many clothing companies, whose clothes hang in our closets today.