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Fashion Brands Have Failed to Protect Workers in Military-Ruled Myanmar

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The Debate | Opinion

Fashion Brands Have Failed to Protect Workers in Military-Ruled Myanmar

The military’s seizure of power has created a climate in which even carrying out human rights due diligence is next to impossible.

Fashion Brands Have Failed to Protect Workers in Military-Ruled Myanmar

Workers at a garment factory in Yangon, March 20, 2018.

Credit: Flickr/IndustriALL Global Union

“We want the brands to know that workers are pressured 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 Huabo Times factory in Myanmar issued this plea back in March, over a year into the country’s military dictatorship, which began a coup d’etat on February 1, 2021. The worker spoke of desperate times for workers who were enduring verbal harassment and abuse, without even the time to use the toilet because of the impossible targets factories were setting them.

Fast forward a few months and the world has watched in horror as Myanmar’s military executed four pro-democracy activists in the country’s first use of capital punishment in over three decades – marking a deadly escalation in state repression in the 18 months since Myanmar’s military illegally seized power. The killings came after a spate of brutal – and often deadly – attacks on those opposing the military regime.

It is a struggle in which garment workers have played a frontline role. Since the coup began, at least 55 trade union activists have been killed and over 300 union leaders and members of the labor movement have been arrested. Almost all union leaders have been forced into hiding, while those still working in the factories have been effectively silenced due to the very real fear of repercussions. Because of the severe restrictions on civic freedoms and reporting under military rule, it is now almost impossible to get a clear picture of the reality on the ground.

Since the military takeover, the London-based Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has monitored the significant increase in labor and human rights abuse of garment workers in Myanmar. Along with partners and allies, both inside and outside the country, we have tracked over 100 cases of alleged abuse against at least 60,800 garment workers in just 18 months. There is no question that widespread and systemic labor violations are occurring in fashion supply chains in Myanmar. These allegations have been linked to factories supplying some of our favorite fashion brands such as H&M, GUESS, Inditex (Zara & Bershka), Next and Primark, raising serious concerns about who suffers from the making of the clothes in our closet.

The cases we have recorded paint a grim picture. Over half included wage theft (55 cases), while other common violations included abusive work rates 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 workers by the military and security forces, as well as the arbitrary arrest and detention of at least 29 workers.

Several of the allegations of abuse involved the violent suppression of union leaders and workers. On April 20 this year, two women union activists were brutally assaulted and arrested by six soldiers after joining a protest against the military regime in Yangon. On their way home, a military vehicle rammed into their taxi before 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 earlier, six workers – including one woman union leader – from Xing Jia Footwear were shot and killed by the military and police after workers gathered outside the factory to request unpaid wages. Several workers were arrested and three were sentenced by a military court to three years imprisonment on what rights groups say are baseless charges.

Many cases of abuse were allegedly perpetrated directly by brands’ factory suppliers, or by the military in collusion with suppliers. Workers and unions have suspected business-military collaboration in 15 percent of recorded cases, although the number may be far higher given that garment factory management and the armed forces appear deeply intertwined. The military has raided factories to arrest workers they suspect to have taken part in anti-coup protests, and factories have shared lists of union leaders with the junta, according to unions. The military has also been conducting door-to-door searches in workplaces, hostels and homes. Given that garment workers are on the frontline of the country’s civil disobedience movement in demanding an end to the dictatorship and 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 are calling 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 some 700,000 people. If orders dry up and factories close, these workers, 90 percent of whom are women, will lose their jobs. Many may end up destitute amid a crisis of conflict and economic instability. According to Save the Children, families in Myanmar have lost on average more than half their income since February 2021 and a third of households are relying on help from others to survive.

However, some labor groups argue that brands that remain are effectively prioritizing profits over human rights. Garment workers are now earning less than $2 a day – far less than what is needed to survive. Factories have taken advantage of the dictatorship to roll back hard-won labor rights and protections unions have fought for over the past two decades.

The Resource Centre has invited 33 brands, all of whom reportedly source from the factories in Myanmar with recorded abuses, to respond to the allegations. Of the 23 brands that responded, the majority (16) highlighted their policy commitments to protecting the human rights of workers in their supply chains, including by conducting human rights due diligence. Despite these commitments, most cases of alleged abuses in the brands’ supply chains remain unresolved, demonstrating a concerning gap between company commitments and the reality in factories. This raises questions about whether it is possible for brands to conduct effective due diligence in the current situation.

Importantly, 17 brands said they had initiated their own investigations into the allegations. And seven brands – including C&A, H&M, Lidl, Next, and Primark – outlined actions that they were taking to ensure remedy for affected workers, a critical step in making real any corporate commitment to human rights. But just over a third (nine) of the brands pointed to findings from social audits or their own interviews with suppliers to refute the allegations, without any direct engagement with unions or workers, which is crucial to effective worker engagement. It is also concerning for the future of the sector in Myanmar.

The reality is that as the dictatorship drags on, it seems likely the situation for labor rights – and human rights more broadly – will only continue to deteriorate.

“We have tried hard to protect jobs and workers’ rights,” said Khaing Zar, President of the Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar. “But… we see the military dictatorship is not disappearing… It is important that we contribute to their immediate and permanent defeat… it is our moral duty to make difficult decisions that will shorten the suffering of our people.”

These circumstances raise serious questions for brands who 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 a minimum, they must undertake the ongoing, heightened human rights due diligence that operating in an active conflict zone requires. But it is increasingly difficult for brands to achieve genuine oversight of conditions in their supplier factories and to ensure compliance with their own, and international, standards, and obligations.

What is clear today is that brands must wake up to the harsh reality that continuing business as usual is simply not an option in Myanmar. And where due diligence is infeasible, or where it leads to the conclusion that protecting workers’ rights is not possible, a responsible exit strategy – in consultation with unions and workers themselves – must be considered.  Now is the time for brands, and the world, to stand with those that have ensured the profitability of so many apparel companies, whose clothes hang in our closets today.