It’s a solemn day in Myanmar. February 1 marks the three-year anniversary of the military coup that threw the nation into disarray.
On the eve of that dire milestone, it was easy to note that things are not getting any better.
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The military announced a six-month extension of the state of emergency Wednesday evening, while the pro-democracy movement resolved to express its protest by asking citizens to stay home and maintain silence on Thursday.
Workers and trade union leaders in other parts of the world were fervent and emotive with words on Thursday in a show of sympathy for the more than 4,000 dead and 25,000 imprisoned (as estimated by Human Rights Watch) since the coup began. It was mixed with indignation, protest and a resolve to help the people and put an end to the three-year rule of the military junta, which has reportedly been quick on the trigger and done little but cause atrocities and hardship.
The case for the estimated 230,000 garment workers in the country was poignant as well, revealing worsening conditions, as highlighted further by new data released by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) this week.
In a report citing top fashion brands as complicit in Myanmar military coup abuse, testimonies from workers alleged unsafe working conditions, gender-based violence and harassment, inhumane work rates and mandatory overtime, as well as reduced wages and wage theft.
Brands cited by the report included Zara owner Inditex, Bestseller, LPP, Lidl and H&M Group.
The report cited countless allegations of labor and human rights violations affecting tens of thousands of workers in Myanmar’s garment sector since the illegal military takeover. These included 230 reported cases of reduced wages and wage theft, 185 reported cases of inhumane work rates and mandatory overtime, 136 reported cases of unfair dismissal, 134 reported cases of unsafe working conditions, 133 reported cases of gender-based violence and harassment, 124 reported cases of harassment, intimidation and abuse and 121 reported cases of denial of leave.
“Importantly, nearly all brands (responding to BHRRC’s due diligence survey) acknowledged the need for heightened due diligence in the increasingly high-risk context of Myanmar,” Natalie Swan, head of labor rights at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre told Sourcing Journal, citing information from August about brand practices. “Brands reflected a range of due diligence efforts, with [the] level of oversight a key differential between responses.”
Among the efforts cited by brands, some maintained smaller, more manageable supplier lists (Bestseller and Next) and the use of field offices (Bestseller, C&A, H&M, Kappahl, Kiabi, Marks & Spencer, Otto Group, OVS, Primark, Sioen and Topvalu), indicating it is still possible to have boots on the ground in Myanmar.
Primark has reported doubling its number of Yangon-based staff even after announcing its exit, and Bestseller, which has no current plans to exit, has also increased its number of field-based staff since the coup from three to 11. This stands in contrast with brands that indicated that on-the-ground oversight was not possible.
Hunkermöller described “close contact” with its suppliers since the coup while reporting no direct in-country inspections or visits since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Matalan outlined difficulties accessing visas as a challenge to visiting the country, and Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing, which has announced its exit, cited safety concerns.
Kiabi’s only on-the-ground staff are two production engineers, and Lidl reported relying on local sourcing intermediaries and importers to organize its relationships and undertake on-the-ground supplier management and inspections.
“Having listed the above examples of better practice from brands, it is important to note that the scale and severity of the abuses make clear all brands sourcing from Myanmar must take further action to ensure they can guarantee the safety and well-being of workers,” Swan said.
Meanwhile, as calls for brands to divest from the country have been growing, global nameplates like Primark, Inditex, H&M and Lidl announced their plans to exit the country over the last few months, while others like Marks & Spencer and C&A announced their divestment in the months following the coup after determining that the risk of remaining was too high.
In a letter sent to representatives of the European Commission on Thursday, the Council of Global Unions called upon the European Union to reevaluate its policies toward Myanmar, urging a withdrawal of the Everything But Arms (EBA) and the Multistakeholder Alliance for Decent Employment in the Myanmar Apparel Industry program (MADE in Myanmar).
The EBA preferential trade policy was introduced in 2013 in recognition of Myanmar’s journey toward democracy.
The letter represented general secretaries of organizations such as UNI Global Union, IndustriALL Global Union and the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC), which are members of the Council of Global Unions
“On the third anniversary of the military coup, we believe it is now obvious that this journey has gone into reverse and that EBA should be withdrawn,” the letter said. “MADE in Myanmar is supported financially by the EU in partnership with EU garment brands, and claims to support labor rights organizations and trade unions and address workers’ grievances. Myanmar’s trade unions—which were banned by the junta—have condemned this program as a sham, designed to whitewash labor rights abuses and provide political cover for garment brands who find Myanmar a cheap and convenient sourcing location.”
The regime “continues to arrest trade unionists and use military force to suppress protests and worker activism,” the letter added, referring to the EU warning in January 2023 that “further measures would be taken if the situation did not improve.”
“We believe it is past time to take those measures,” it pointed out.
The letter further noted, “Myanmar’s trade unions say that the banning of their organizations, and the absence of freedom of association, means workers face conditions of modern slavery. This finding was confirmed by the ILO Commission of Inquiry, which reported far-reaching violations of freedom of association and forced labor conventions. This means that clothing made in conditions of modern slavery is being sold to EU consumers by EU companies, with EU financial and political support.”
It cited the fact that the EU had earlier said that its policies would be reconsidered in light of the report’s findings, which were “unequivocal, and details violence against trade union leaders, the issuing of arrest warrants and the cancellation of passports, instances of forced labor, the use of human shields, forced recruitment to the military and the imposition of martial law.” Given the “impossibility” of conducting due diligence in an environment where freedom of association is not possible, the letter said, the MADE in Myanmar program is “untenable.”
In a webinar titled “Freedom for Myanmar” on Thursday, several global representatives came together in solidarity and to share updates.
Kyaw Ni, deputy minister of labor affairs of the National Unity Government (NUG), which was formed by the parties elected democratically in Myanmar in November 2020, stressed the tripartite structure of the organization, which is ready to resume the journey toward democracy as soon as the junta regime falls. “This includes the main trade union federation and a democratic employers’ association,” he said, explaining that NUG was working as much to provide services for the people as to ensure the future of the country.
U Maung Maung, founder of the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTUM) in Myanmar, described several problems for garment workers. A major one stems from the fact that a manufacturer based in Myanmar works with a “principal” (usually a Chinese, Japanese, or Korean manufacturing company) that sends local factories in Myanmar the raw materials for cutting, making and packaging (CMP). “The structure of the CMP model and the low-tax approach incentivizes the garment industry, but it means that most of the value generated is preserved or held outside the country, primarily within the principal office or supplier headquarters,” he said.
He said that garment exports in the 2022-23 financial year were down to $994.3 million from $1.36 billion a year before, having reached $1.84 billion before declining. He said that a significant increase in the minimum wage was needed to support responsible sourcing practices, that it was hard to ensure that the minimum wage was being observed, and that the present wage is far below what could be considered a living wage.
U Maung Maung also said that the situation for manufacturers themselves was a challenge—not only due to sanctions, but also because the military junta isn’t able to provide enough power to factories. Citing a recent report, he said that a survey of the garment firms showed that primary power outages had an impact on 60 percent of production, causing an average loss of 31 percent of total sales.
Christy Hoffman, general secretary of the UNI Global Union reiterated support in the webinar. “The Council of Global Unions (CGU) brings together all the global unions, representing 200 million workers and more than 190 countries,” she said, adding that the coup interrupted progress in Myanmar, but did not end it. She noted the grounds for optimism given the continuing strength of the CTUM and the fact that the UN General Assembly continues to refuse to recognize the junta.
“It does not mean enough has happened; we have to continue to further isolate the government financially to weaken it further,” Hoffman said, emphasizing the need for continuous pressure on garment brands to withdraw from the country.