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Fashion Warns of Myanmar Sourcing Risks if ‘Democracy Is Not Restored’

The international fashion community has issued a call for the “quick and peaceful restoration” of Myanmar’s “legitimate civilian government.”

In a joint statement Tuesday, nearly a dozen fashion trade and labor organizations, including the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the Ethical Trading Initiative, the Fair Labor Association and Social Accountability International, urged the Burmese military to cease its violent and deadly crackdown on civilians and anti-coup protestors, release those who have been detained, restore internet service and reject proposed legal restrictions on internet activity as damaging to freedom of expression and assembly.

“This coup, and the military’s growing violence in support of it, threatens to reverse the progress and the thawing of relations between Myanmar and the international community ongoing since 2011,” the letter said.

Clothing and textiles, Myanmar’s top export earner after oil and gas, generated 4.8 billion last year, according to the Ministry of Commerce.. The sector is a major jobs creator, too, with nearly 600 factories in the country employing roughly 700,000 workers.

“If democracy is not restored, the hard-fought social and economic progress of the country and the well-being of its people will be significantly put at risk,” the letter said. “In addition, the rights of ethnic minority groups and women following the coup are at particular risk.”

The coup, the organizations noted, has created a climate of uncertainty that is already rattling factory and cargo operations. These disruptions, coupled with the potential for sanctions beyond those imposed by the United States, could result in a re-evaluation of Myanmar as a “stable sourcing partner.”

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Because companies sourcing from Myanmar must “place special emphasis on the safety and economic security of workers,” the letter’s signatories are asking its member companies and all businesses sourcing in the country to exercise “enhanced” due diligence and supply-chain monitoring to ensure respect for workers’ fundamental rights. Businesses, the organizations said, must ensure that workers’ rights to peaceful protest are respected without discrimination or penalization and that trade union representatives are neither victimized nor targeted.

“We urge brands, and their suppliers, to immediately undertake enhanced human-rights due diligence and responsible purchasing practices to identify whether they are doing business, directly or indirectly, with companies that are known to be owned or controlled by the military services of Myanmar, and take steps to sever these business ties, while making best efforts to protect workers that may be impacted,” the letter said.

The organizations don’t recommend that buyers suspend or sever ties with Myanmar, however. Rather, companies should “engage proactively” with suppliers in the nation, closely monitor the situation at all of their supplier factories and strive to honor all existing commitments made to factories in terms of both payments and in-production orders.

“Companies should ensure workers are paid for the work they do and extend lenient contract terms on delivery dates if needed, especially as production and export are likely to be negatively affected due to varying factors,” the letter said. “In addition, we urge suppliers to maintain an active dialogue with the elected worker representatives and trade unions in resolving differences and addressing the current crisis.”

The Clean Clothes Campaign, the garment industry’s largest consortium of labor unions and non-governmental organizations, likewise reiterated its support for workers in Myanmar on Wednesday with a joint statement of solidarity that appealed for allyship from garment companies operating in and sourcing from the Southeast Asian nation.

All garment manufacturers, brands and retailers active in Myanmar, the organization said, must publicly condemn the military coup, call for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, protect and support the labor-rights movement and ensure that their business activities are not directly linked to the military.

“Brands and retailers must condemn the military’s announcement declaring illegal labor-rights organizations and prohibiting them to continue their activities,” the Clean Clothes Campaign wrote. “They must also voice and show their support for freedom of association and ensure their direct and indirect suppliers respect these principles.”

Brands, retailers and responsible business initiatives that focus on the garment industry must also respond immediately to complaints or information regarding human and labor-rights violations occurring in factories where they or their members source from, the group said. To enable the identification of risks and a swift resolution of complaints and human-rights violations, brands and retailers should disclose an updated list of their direct and indirect suppliers in Myanmar, including names, addresses, product types and number of workers.

“We call on garment brands, retailers and manufacturers to make these commitments public, to share them with their direct and indirect suppliers in Myanmar and with relevant business partners,” the organization said. “We urge improvement initiatives to publicly commit to these recommendations, to share them with their members and to closely monitor their corporate members to ensure they fulfill their obligations to respect human rights.”

In mid-February, brands such as Adidas, Bestseller, H&M and KappAhl signed a statement of concern facilitated by the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business expressing their support for the people of Myanmar.

“As investors, we inhabit a ‘shared space’ with the people of Myanmar, including civil society organizations, in which we all benefit from respect for human rights, democracy and fundamental freedoms—including freedom of expression and association—and the rule of law,” the statement said. “The rule of law, respect for human rights and the unrestricted flow of information all contribute to a stable business environment.”

The signatories, the statement said, will “continue to work hand in hand” with local business partners that share the same approach. “We believe our business presence, practices and advocacy for a level playing field for all businesses, and our commitment to international human-rights standards contribute in a significant way to the journey of openness and democracy in Myanmar,” it added.