H&M declined to say whether the Myanmar junta’s execution of four prisoners, including two prominent pro-democracy activists, will alter its decision to continue sourcing clothing from the troubled Southeast Asian nation. Primark said it is still waiting for a human-rights impact assessment before it diverts from its course, while Bestseller, Lidl and Zara owner Inditex did not respond to the request for comment altogether.
The Saturday hangings of Phyo Zeya Thaw, Kyaw Min Yu, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw, Myanmar’s first use of the death penalty since the late 1980s, mark an “atrocious escalation in state repression,” according to Amnesty International.
“These executions amount to arbitrary deprivation of lives and are another example of Myanmar’s atrocious human rights record,” Erwin van der Borght, the human-rights group’s regional director, said. “The four men were convicted by a military court in highly secretive and deeply unfair trials. The international community must act immediately as more than 100 people are believed to be on death row after being convicted in similar proceedings.”
Violence and chaos have reigned across Myanmar since the military’s forcible ouster of Aung San Suu Ky’s semi-democratic government last year. The regime has met waves of civil disobedience and general strikes with increasingly brutal responses, including opening fire on unarmed protestors and burning down thousands of homes.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners estimates that more than 2,100 civilians have been killed and nearly 14,900 arrested since the start of the coup. More than 11,790 are still under lock and key, it said.
There is no longer any rule of law in Mynamar, experts say, and workers’ rights are nonexistent. At least 16 labor organizations have been outlawed by the junta, while hundreds of union leaders are either behind bars or in hiding. So far, Myanmar’s garment factories have cut at least 250,000 jobs since the military wrested power, causing further suffering and deprivation. Those who remained employed face growing labor abuses, including wage theft, mandatory overtime and gender-based violence and harassment.
It’s in this milieu that brands are failing to protect Myanmar’s workers—many of them women on the dissidence frontlines making less than $2 a day—from these ongoing threats, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) said Tuesday.
A study by the nonprofit uncovered more than 100 cases of human-rights violations against at least 60,800 of the country’s garment workers. Over half of them (55) involved wage theft, while others included abusive work rates and mandatory overtime (35 cases) and attacks on freedom of association (31 cases). The BHRRC also recorded the killing of seven workers by armed security forces and the arbitrary arrests and detention of another 15.
The cases listed are only the “tip of the iceberg” given the restrictions on civil liberties and the fear of reprisals for those who speak out against the injustices, said Alysha Khambay, the BHRRC’s head of labor rights.
“Garment workers in Myanmar have been risking their lives to report labor rights violations in the country, only to be met with aggressive—even deadly—force to any opposition and dissent,” she said. “Brands must wake up to the harsh reality that decent working conditions no longer exist in Myanmar and continuing business as usual is no longer helping to ‘protect jobs and workers,’ as has been repeatedly claimed.”
Khambay said that many abuse allegations were perpetrated directly by a brand’s factory suppliers or by the military colluding with those suppliers. Factories, she noted, have “taken advantage” of the dictatorship to roll back long-fought-for worker rights and protections. Brands linked to the most complaints included Inditex and Bestseller with nine allegations each, Lidl with eight and H&M with six.
H&M, again, declined to comment, while the other brands did not respond to emailed requests.
“With freedom of association curtailed to near non-existence, brands do not have clear oversight over their supply chains or the risks and abuse facing the workers who make their clothes,” Khambay said. “In the current context it is virtually impossible to implement any effective human-rights due diligence in the country.”
If brands cannot guarantee the protection of workers’ rights in their supply chains, a responsible exit from the country is the “only way forward,” she said. “They must use their leverage to show the illegal dictatorship that this abuse will not be tolerated, or risk being implicated in the continued suffering of workers.”
So far, Aldi South and Tesco are the only major apparel purveyors to exit Myanmar, BHRRC said, although Benetton Group and C&A have previously said that they are no longer placing new orders in the nation.
ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation), a multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to improve living wages for garment workers, has scuppered all activities in the country, while the Ethical Trading Initiative, whose roster includes most of the brands mentioned in this story, advised its members last month to refrain from making any additional investments “at this time.”
Myanmar unions have been asking the European Union to suspend the country’s Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement, which removes tariffs and quotas for all imports of goods, except arms and ammunition, into the bloc from the least-developed countries. The jobs they facilitate, IndustriALL Global Union said earlier this month, are by no means decent jobs. “Real” human-rights diligence, it added, is simply not possible under such conditions.
“Myanmar is facing profound and well-documented violations of [United Nations] and [International Labour Organization] conventions included in the [Generalized System of Preferences]/EBA regulations, by multinational companies and brands, among which 61 EU well-known fashion brands,” said Khaing Zar Aung, the exiled president of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar. “Respect for the conventions are conditions for maintaining the EBA and the workers’ rights need a prompt and effective response by the EU.”
No decent work can flourish in a regime where unions cannot operate, added IndustriALL general secretary Atle Høie.
“There is no way to do business in Myanmar without doing harm to the people and workers,” Høie said. “We are urging the European Union to immediately suspend the EBA arrangement with Myanmar.”