Ahead of the first anniversary of Myanmar’s military coup, a global alliance of more than 130 trade unions and labor groups, including the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions and the Federation of General Workers Myanmar, is calling on multinational fashion brands to “cease all production and pull out” of the turbulent Southeast Asian nation, where a brutal crackdown on the civil disobedience movement has left behind a trail of bodies and despair.
Speaking at the launch of the Myanmar Military: Never in Fashion campaign Monday, Jay Kerr, a campaigner at London-based anti-sweatshop group No Sweat, recounted reports of garment factory owners working closely with the military and police to “hand over perceived troublemakers,” including trade union leaders and workers involved in pro-democracy protests. As violence permeates the workplace, labor violations, including mandatory overtime and wage theft, have become more flagrant, he said. What little rights workers had are all but nonexistent.
“From our perspective, under these conditions, it’s impossible for brands to do the due diligence needed to protect workers,” he said. “They can’t do what they can do in other countries under the circumstances they are in. It’s time for brands to go. This is not a judgment made lightly.” What differentiates the campaign from previous ones is that the call for a boycott comes from the workers themselves, Kerr added.
Since Feb. 1, 2021, security forces have caused the deaths of more than 1,500 civilians, including 200 who died during torture at interrogation centers, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a human-rights group. At the garment district of Hlaingtharyar in Yangon last March, police fired live ammunition at a crowd of unarmed demonstrators, killing 60.
Covid-19 has thrown Myanmar into further chaos. The World Bank estimates that the country’s economy has shrunk by 18 percent, leaving it roughly 30 percent smaller than it would have been without the one-two punch of the coronavirus and the expulsion of the civilian government. The International Labour Organization revealed Friday that some 1.6 million jobs have evaporated over the past year, with the garment industry accounting for 220,000 of them. Women made up nine in 10 of the job losses, the agency added.
While some brands have stopped placing new orders with their suppliers in Myanmar, others, including Bestseller, H&M, Mango, Next and Primark have said they would continue to source from the country to provide workers with jobs. Several have cited a desire to wait for the results of a pending Ethical Trade Initiative and Fair Wear Foundation human-rights impact assessment, announced in September, that will include an “evidence-based” comparison of how continued sourcing in Myanmar versus fleeing the embattled nation affects workers and the local industry.
But there is no need for such a survey since trade unions have already provided the organizations with a long list of the junta’s “extreme violations,” said Khaing Zar Aung, the exiled president of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar, which withdrew from the multi-stakeholder initiative ACT (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) last year because it was no longer able to “operate freely under the current circumstances.” ACT, which seeks to improve living wages for garment workers, responded with the “difficult decision” to cease all activities in Myanmar.
Last week, the U.S. Department of State and other federal agencies issued a business advisory warning of the “heightened risks” associated with conducting business in Myanmar, particularly activity that could benefit the military regime. The notice came after France’s Total Energies and California-headquartered Chevron, two of the world’s largest energy companies, announced they were halting all operations in Myanmar because of the deteriorating humanitarian situation.
“The United States does not seek to curtail legitimate business and responsible investment in Burma,” the State Department said, using another name for Myanmar. “However, businesses and individuals should be wary of the associated illicit finance and money laundering risks, as well as reputational and legal risks, of conducting business and utilizing supply chains under military control in Burma. The military regime has undermined the rule of law, facilitated widespread corruption, and committed serious human-rights abuses, which exacerbate risks to foreign businesses operating in Burma or providing financial services to Burmese businesses.”
Khaing Zar Aung said she fears the assessment’s results will be wielded as an argument against divestment, even though brands are legitimizing a “terrorist dictatorship” by staying. Worse, by sourcing from factories inside industrial zones linked to the military, they could also be pouring money into the junta’s coffers, even though Myanmar makes up a tiny fraction of most U.S. and European brands’ supplier networks.
That’s not to say they should cut and run. The Myanmar Military: Never in Fashion campaign wants to see a “responsible” exit from brands that includes paying all workers for orders that have been completed, working with trade unions to resolve wage disputes and doling out humanitarian aid.
Khaing Zar Aung said garment workers want brands to continue sourcing from Myanmar but only if the rule of law respects human rights, which it currently doesn’t. Right now, there is no freedom of association, no collective bargaining and no human rights “at all,” she said. “I know brands say they want to stay in Myanmar so they can protect workers. But there is no way for them to protect workers.”