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Workers work at a garment factory in Yangon. From factory floors in India to the warehouses of Cambodia, garment workers for global brands say the collapse in demand triggered by the coronavirus is being used as a cover to break their unions. File photo: AFP

Fashion brands from Zara to H&M urged to make ‘responsible exit’ from Myanmar

  • Workers at factories linked to the supply chains of global firms have faced increased abuse, including wage theft and sexual harassment, according to a new report
  • If brands ‘cannot guarantee the protection of workers’ rights in their supply chains, a responsible exit from the country is the only way forward’, the group behind the study says
International fashion brands are failing to protect garment workers in Myanmar’s supply chains, with labour and human rights violations surging across the country since the military coup in February last year, according to a new report.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an international NGO that tracks the human rights impacts of companies, on Tuesday released a study that revealed “widespread and systemic abuse in international brands’ supply chains”. This included wage theft, abusive work rates, mandatory unpaid overtime, as well as gender-based violence and sexual harassment.

The non-profit group, along with partners, compiled 104 cases of labour and human rights violations against at least 60,800 workers in Myanmar’s garment sector from February 1 last year to date, based on publicly recorded information.

A Myanmar worker at a garment factory in the northwestern Thailand. File photo: Reuters
According to the report, the workers involved were employed at 70 factories that supply, or have recently supplied, to at least 32 global fashion brands and retailers, including adidas, Inditex (Zara and Bershka), Fast Retailing (Uniqlo), multinational fashion retailer Hennes & Mauritz ( H&M), and Primark.

“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,” said Alysha Khambay, head of labour rights at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.

“When the military isn’t conducting door-to-door searches in hostels and homes, their presence is being requested by factories to threaten workers into silence,” she noted.

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Researchers said that the data highlighted not only the scale and scope of abuse in the 18 months since the military seized power, but also the “widespread impunity” enjoyed by perpetrators.

Among the most common violations were wage theft (55 cases) as well as abusive work rates and mandatory overtime (35 cases), along with 31 cases of attacks on freedom of association.

The tracker also documented the killing of seven workers by the military and armed security forces, with 15 cases of arbitrary arrest and detention of workers.

Khambay said that each case recorded on the database involved an allegation or multiple allegations that affected workers employed at a factory. Some cases may be related to only one worker, while others impacted thousands.

“We know how many specific incidents of abuse there has been, but we don’t always know the exact number of workers it has affected,” she noted. “This means that the actual total number of affected workers could be much higher than 60,800.”

Khambay said the cases that were documented were “just the tip of the iceberg given the severe restrictions on civic freedoms and reporting under military rule, and the heightened risk of reprisals for workers who speak out against abuse”.


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Violence against women

Myanmar’s garment workers – numbering about 700,000, of whom 90 per cent are women – have been on the frontline of the country’s civil disobedience movement against the military.

Researchers said they have faced growing levels of gender-based violence and harassment under the regime.

The report mentioned 28 specific cases of alleged gender-based violence, which included sexual harassment, physical, and verbal abuse of women workers. But most of the other cases constituted some form of gender-based violence, according to the United Nations guidelines.

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The study described cases where factory managers and supervisors were subjecting women workers to being punched in the chest and head, being kicked, yelled at, and referred to as “dogs”. Workers also said they were routinely required to do excessive hours, often until midnight, with some factories not providing transport home, which has allegedly led to the rape of at least one woman.

Researchers said that many abuse allegations were perpetrated directly by brand’s factory suppliers or by the military in collusion with those suppliers.

Among those linked to the most abuse allegations were popular brands and retailers, such as Zara and Bershka of the Inditex group (nine allegations), Bestseller (nine allegations), Lidl (eight allegations), and H&M (six allegations).

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre gave the 32 buyers linked to the factories the opportunity to respond to the alleged abuse of workers in their supply chains. About two-thirds responded.

Swedish retailer Inditex says it is ‘is continuously conducting thorough due diligence’. File photo: Reuters

Addressing concerns raised in the report, a spokesman for the Spanish fashion retailer Inditex told researchers that the company has monitored the issue. “We are working closely with our suppliers and main partners”, the statement read, adding that the “fair treatment of workers and no discrimination against its representatives” were priorities.

Swedish fast fashion H&M Group also said it “remained deeply concerned about the situation in Myanmar and is continuously conducting thorough due diligence”, while making sure that “violations are identified and appropriately remedied”.

The company added it was “aware of increased challenges in relation to fundamental human rights” and that concerns had been raised “with suppliers as well as trade unions”.

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Denmark-based fashion company Bestseller told researchers that it had increased due diligence and put more resources into assuring that workers’ rights have been respected since the coup took place.

“There is no simple ethical solution to sourcing in Myanmar and the gravity of this dilemma underlies our responsibility to await the independent impact assessment,” a statement read. Bestseller’s future in Myanmar would be decided in “dialogue with experts, NGOs, trade unions and other relevant stakeholders”.

Retailer chain Lidl said that it took “accusations very seriously”, referring to cases that included threats against union leaders, dangerous working conditions, and discrimination against pregnant workers.

“[We] immediately initiated our compliance process and communicated all listed compliance cases to our supplier who is investigating those. Until the remediation is complete, no new orders will be placed at the factory,” said a statement from Lidl.


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Profits over human rights

Khambay said factories have taken advantage of the dictatorship to roll back the hard-won labour rights, which unions had fought for over the past two decades.

“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 … it is virtually impossible to implement any effective human rights due diligence in the country,” Khambay noted.

Despite calls for international brands to withdraw from Myanmar until democracy is restored, the study said that only two companies – Tesco and Aldi South – have exited.

“The many remaining brands must answer accusations they stand to profit from the repression of their mainly female garment workforce under military rule,” the report read.

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Researchers said that while brands such as Primark and H&M initially suspended orders following the military takeover, they have since resumed, citing the protection of jobs as a major factor in this decision.

“Yet, at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, some of these same brands – and many others sourcing from Myanmar – cancelled orders and requested retroactive discounts with little consideration for the workers in their supply chain, who were dismissed in their thousands without payment of owed wages,” the report read.

Before the military takeover, garment workers could expect to make some US$3.50 a day but under the current regime, workers said that many factories had cut wages while driving them to meet increased production targets. Many now earn less than US$2 a day.

Before the military takeover, garment workers could expect to make some US$3.50 a day. Now, many earn less than US$2 a day. File photo: SCMP

Although some groups and brands, such as Inditex and Mango, reported that they had cut ties with factories where abuse took place, advocates said that such effort had fallen short.

Khambay said that global brands must use their leverage to show the dictatorship that this abuse will not be tolerated, or risk being implicated in the continued suffering of workers.

“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.