Zara and Primark are facing new pressure amid claims that hundreds of workers at factories that manufacture for them were fired after forming a union. What’s more, fired workers say they formed the union because of dismal factory conditions that were far from equitable and inclusive. And they say factory management is using COVID-19 as the guise for letting workers go.
Across two factories in Myanmar that produce clothing for Zara and Primark, Huabo Times and Rui-Ning, hundreds of workers were reportedly fired days after their unionization, The Guardian reported Wednesday. At Huabo Times, workers reportedly said management fired more than 100 workers—who were primarily union members or supporters—but then transferred 200 non-union workers from another factory to replace them. At Rui-Ning, nearly 300 union members were dismissed from their posts in May after the union took shape in February.
“I see the firing as clearly union-busting under the pretext of the pandemic. The factory fired most of the union members, including myself,” Kyaw Thu Zaw, a worker at the Rui-Ning factory and president of the union, told The Guardian. “They gave the excuse of difficulty in transporting products to Europe, but in reality there was no difficulty as the factory transported a bulk of products to destination countries on 12 May.”
Workers at Rui-Ning went about forming the union because they said regular shifts were 10-hour days, six days a week, with expectations of regular overtime, and working conditions were poor. Former workers allege that “supervisors yell and use rude language,” that sanitary conditions are substandard—including dumping washroom waste into a canal outside the factory, not far from workers’ lunch break area—and that the risk of being fired for doing much other than just going along, is high. In all, factory workers there reportedly earn roughly $3 a day.
In a letter sent to Zara founder Amancio Ortega and obtained by The Guardian, fired workers from both factories wrote: “When the pandemic began, many workers like us continued to make your clothes even as factory management initially failed to grant us safety measures such as face masks and social distancing as a way to protect ourselves and our families from Covid-19. Now, the management has seized upon the global crisis as an opportunity to destroy our unions, dismissing union members en masse.”
A separate letter was sent to Primark from Huabo Times, which also produces for the fast-fashion retailer.
Fired union workers said management cited the need for social distancing at the factory as the reason for the terminations, but they allege 107 workers were fired and 200 workers from another factory were brought in to replace them. They had been trying to form a union to secure an employment contract that would outline the factory owners’ responsibilities and the workers’ rights.
“They used coronavirus as an excuse for the firing, but the employer dismissed all our members and supporters,” Naing Win San, another union leader who was fired from Huabo Times, told The Guardian. “All 107 workers are all related to the union.”
Acknowledging the case, Zara parent company Inditex said dismissing workers for forming a union is completely out of alignment with its supplier Code of Conduct.
“Regardless of whether they are in proximity to our headquarters in Spain–where 60% of our garments are produced–or further afield, we demand that all our suppliers respect the right to freedom of association. We are working closely with our suppliers at this difficult time and we expect continued compliance with our Code of Conduct, which clearly requires fair treatment of workers and expressly forbids discrimination against workers’ representatives,” a spokesperson for Inditex told Sourcing Journal Wednesday. “We are aware of the cases mentioned and while we are only one of the customers of each of these factories, in each dispute we are engaging with the factory owners to drive social dialogue with workers to find a resolution, supported by IndustriALL Global Union with which we have a long standing framework agreement. Mediation by Inditex has already helped resolve a similar dispute at another factory in Myanmar, and we are committed to playing our part in the development of mature industrial relations in the country.”
Primark, which clarified that it only has a relationship with Huabo Times and not Rui-Ning, similarly referred to the portion of its Code of Conduct that says all workers have the right to join or form unions.
“The current pandemic has not altered our commitment to this principle, or any others in our Code. We take any suggestion that our Code has been breached very seriously and will always investigate,” a Primark spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “We were aware of this allegation and an investigation is already underway. We are in contact with both the union and the supplier, who has entered into dialogue with the union and the Ministry of Labour, to determine further details…Once our investigation has concluded, if a breach has been identified we will work with the supplier on remediation.”
Updated June 25, 2020 at 7:15 a.m. to include comment from Primark.