A Taiwan-owned Adidas supplier in Myanmar has asked more than two dozen workers to return to work after they were fired for heading a protest over low wages and oppressive working conditions, Myanmar Now reported Wednesday.
But 17 have refused to sign a new employment contract with Myanmar Pou Chen. Another nine accepted compensation before resigning. Agreeing to the “unfair and one-sided” terms, they told the outlet, would have required them to drop their demands and abstain from future demonstrations.
“We were asked to sign a contract that said we were satisfied and would not negotiate further. We cannot accept that,” Phyo Thida Win, chair of Myanmar Pou Chen’s labor union and one of the dismissed workers, told Myanmar Now. “They did not accept any of the terms we proposed. It seemed like we were being made to simply accept their conditions, so I didn’t sign and I left.”
It was more than two months ago that the 26 former employees led 2,000-plus workers in a three-day strike in the face of soaring food and fuel prices, which have left them struggling to survive. Chief among their demands was a wage increase from 4,800 kyat ($2.29) to 8,000 kyat ($3.80) per day. They also called for clean drinking water, the right to unionize, paid overtime, guaranteed days off and disciplinary action against supervisors who hurl abuse at employees.
Another sore point: the production targets. Phyo Thida Win previously told Radio Free Asia that the factory required workers to pump out 120 pairs of shoes every hour in 2018. This has since jumped to 220 without a corresponding increase in pay.
The workers’ appeals went unheeded, however. Instead, the Pou Chen Group subsidiary called in the military, which arrived in four army vehicles alongside police to threaten protestors. The factory’s bosses also fired the workers it blamed for the demonstration, pointing to their “unexcused absence.”
Adidas has maintained that it “strongly objects” 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 told Sourcing Journal in December.
But Phyo Thida Win told Myanmar Now that negotiations with Myanmar Pou Chen have effectively failed, leaving workers no option but to escalate their requests with Adidas. The sportswear giant, which has continued to source in Myanmar despite the ruling junta’s crackdown on workers’ rights, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the recent developments. Pou Chen Group, which accounts for one-fifth of the combined wholesale value of the global branded athletic and casual footwear market, has also continued to remain mum.
The last time Myanmar’s minimum wage saw an uplift was under Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy government in 2018, two years before the military’s violent takeover. Last week, a Burmese court extended the former leader’s prison sentence to 33 years.
“Workers in Myanmar have seen a drop in their real wage level both due to currency devaluation and because the laws that dictate that there should be a review of minimum wages every two years have now been ignored for five years,” Thulsi Narayanasamy, director of international advocacy at the Worker Rights Consortium, told Sourcing Journal. “They are struggling to survive; it’s unconscionable for Adidas to ignore the reasonable demand for a wage increase. They have leverage over the supplier; it’s hard to understand why they aren’t using it when the situation is so serious for workers.”
Myanmar Pou Chen’s remaining workers, she noted, were facing daily harassment by soldiers both outside the factory and on their commute to work, though this has recently stopped. Those that were laid off have had to move away from Yangon, where the factory is based, because they can no longer afford the city’s pricier accommodations. One worker, already in ill health, went three days without eating until her coworkers could buy her food.
Brands, Narayanasamy said, have a responsibility to be “especially vigilant” about protecting worker rights, particularly when it comes from high-risk, military-controlled regimes like Myanmar. Adidas itself had promised, following the Ethical Trading Initiative’s September declaration that normal human rights due diligence in Myanmar was a non-starter, to “enforce compliance” with its standards through “due-diligence activities including on-site inspections” in the Southeast Asian nation.
“Yet on a basic issue like protecting the right to organize, Adidas has still failed to ensure remedy for workers for over two months, seriously bringing into question their due diligence ability and commitment,” she added.