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Adidas Shoe Supplier Refuses to Reinstate Fired Workers

A Taiwan-owned factory in Myanmar that supplies shoes to Adidas has refused to reinstate more than two dozen workers who were fired after leading a protest for better working conditions and higher pay, Sourcing Journal has confirmed.

“It’s an absolute abomination that it’s the end of December and the workers have still not been reinstated,” said Thulsi Narayanasamy, director of international advocacy at the Worker Rights Consortium, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, referencing a recent report by Radio Free Asia. “And now many of them are concerned about going back to work there even if they were given the opportunity because of the concerns about discrimination.”

Myanmar Pou Chen’s 26 former employees called the three-day strike of more than 2,000 workers in late October to demand a wage hike from 4,800 kyat ($2.29) to 8,000 kyat ($3.80) per day. Phyo Thida Win, president of the Myanmar Pou Chen factory workers’ union, told Radio Free Asia that the factory required workers to crank out 120 pairs of shoes every hour in 2018. That number has since jumped to 220 without a corresponding increase in pay.

Workers also asked for clean drinking water, the right to form a union and for supervisors who verbally abuse employees to face discipline.

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In response, the Pou Chen Group subsidiary called in the military, which arrived in four army vehicles alongside police to threaten demonstrators. The factory’s management then fired the workers it blamed for the protest, citing their “unexcused absence.”

Even now, Narayanasamy said, the remaining workers at Myanmar Pou Chen, which did not respond to a request for comment, are facing daily harassment by soldiers both outside the factory and on their commute to work. Those that were laid off have had to move away from Yangon, the city where the factory is situated, because they can no longer afford a hostel. One worker who was already in poor health went three days without eating until her coworkers could buy her food.

Myanmar’s junta, which seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s semi-democratic government last year, has been cracking down on civil liberties, declaring the 16 labor organizations that comprise the Myanmar Labour Alliance illegal and forcing hundreds of union leaders either behind bars or into exile. And earlier this month, it burned down more than 40 houses belonging to members of the Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) in the Sagaing region. Soldiers were following a list of people involved in the civil disobedience movement, people with knowledge of the matter said.

Khaing Zar Aung, the IWFM’s exiled president, said she believes there could be more homes that were destroyed. The international community, she said, needs to “stop feeding” the military with business profits. “Workers are suffering, and their lives are at stake under the military regime,” she added.

The incident was a marked escalation from conditions that were already dire. In September, the Ethical Trading Initiative, a multi-stakeholder group that includes Bestseller, H&M Group and Marks & Spencer as members, though not Adidas, declared that it simply “wasn’t possible” for responsible businesses to apply normal human-rights due diligence amid the current regime. Buyers, it said, do not hold any leverage with the military to mitigate these security threats to trade unions and workers’ representatives or anyone else working to support these efforts. The “severe” lack of access to remedy for workers also makes any effort to rein in violations untenable.

And the hits keep coming. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s Myanmar tracker continues to log cases of exploitative work rates, mandatory overtime and attacks on freedom of association against tens of thousands of garment workers—12 in the past month alone.

Adidas told Sourcing Journal that it continues to “monitor the situation” in Myanmar and is “fully engaged” with “concerned” stakeholders and its suppliers to ensure that the “rights of workers in the supply chain are upheld.” The World Cup sponsor and official outfitter, which is facing protests of its own, said it continues to “enforce compliance” with its standards through “due-diligence activities including on-site inspections.”

The former Ye collaborator also said that it has “strongly objected” to the dismissals at Myanmar Pou Chen, which it said are in breach of its workplace standards and its “long-standing commitment” to upholding workers’ freedom of association. “We are investigating the lawfulness of the supplier’s actions and we have called on Pou Chen to immediately reinstate the dismissed workers,” a spokesperson said.

But the factory is still “openly threatening” about the prospect of a union operating there, Narayanasamy said. At present, only four of the 26 fired workers have taken payment from the factory. “They are understandably concerned that accepting money they are owed will mean they can’t be reinstated,” she said. “Adidas has been doing nothing.”

San Yu Hlaing, one of the fired workers, told Radio Free Asia that she and her colleagues just want their jobs back and their wages for November.

“We are not the enemies of the factory. Our families can only make ends meet because of these factories,” she said. “That’s why we don’t want to clash with the factory any further…but the factory employers have not done anything to meet our demands.”