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NGOs Urge Support for Striking Myanmar Garment Workers

A global coalition of non-governmental organizations is urging Western apparel brands to denounce the Myanmar coup that ousted and detained a democratically elected leader and thrust the Southeast Asian nation into turmoil.

In a joint statement, 17 groups voiced their support for the emerging sourcing nation’s “striking workers,” which include “many in the garment industry,” as well as the “calls for a general strike” in the aftermath of the military junta’s Feb. 1 coup that reversed years of democratic progress and slapped a raft of charges against 75-year-old politician and one-time Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Brands from Gap to Guess to Mango have in recent years established sourcing operations in Myanmar, attracted to its young labor pool and low wages.

“We fully support the trade union federations in Myanmar that have suspended all involvement in the tripartite mechanisms that had worked with the government on labor issues, citing fears of a return to the brutal and oppressive practices against workers perpetrated by the military junta in the past,” said the statement signed by groups including Burma Campaign UK, Fashion Roundtable, GMB Union, Homeworkers Worldwide, Labour Behind the Label, and Unite the Union.

“Myanmar’s trade union federations are calling for Western brands to take action and help end the military coup,” it added.

The U.S. government has already stepped up pressure on Myanmar, with the Biden administration imposing sanctions on Feb. 11 on the nation also known as Burma. The United Kingdom and Canada followed with their own penalties, though Burma Campaign UK dismissed the British measures as little more than a “holiday ban.”

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Military leaders sanctioned by the British government “won’t have any assets in the UK to freeze, so the practical outcome of these type of sanctions is that they can’t take holidays in the UK,” Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK, said. “Sanctioning military companies will hit the military where it hurts, in their pockets, and it is essential that [Foreign Secretary] Dominic Raab moves swiftly to get these sanctions in place.” However, the NGO welcomed Raab’s plan to “stop British companies [from] doing business with the Burmese military.”

With little progress made in the three weeks since the coup and at least two demonstrators killed, the NGO coalition urged apparel brands to not just denounce the political upset and advocate for protesting garment workers, but also ensure they don’t have any links with groups tied to the Myanmar military. Brands, it added, must also certify that even suppliers not linked to the military “do not contribute to or aggravate human rights violations.” They should also safeguard the jobs and wages of garment workers standing against the coup and guarantee that neither workers nor union officials face negative repercussions for these activities.

Finally, the coalition pressed brands to provide security for striking garment workers “where they might feel unsafe” traveling to their place of employment, and to consider giving laborers the option of staying home if they so choose without fear of docked wages.

“We call on brands to make these commitments public and to encourage other companies to follow suit,” the coalition said. “The international community needs to come together to put economic pressure on Myanmar’s military, without negatively impacting the lives and well being of the people of Myanmar.”

Myanmar’s burgeoning garment sector was already reeling before this month’s upheaval. In December, a union official claimed brands were using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to cull unionized workers and leaders. The industry’s roughly 600,000 garment workers saw setbacks when the nation, and subsequently apparel-producing factories, locked down in October amid the second wave of Covid-19 infections. A minimum wage increase set to take effect last year was postponed due to pandemic disruption, Phyo Sandar Soe, assistant general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar, told Sourcing Journal.

And despite the challenging environment, a separate union leader and sewer praised H&M for providing better working conditions for employees.