Apparel brands may reconsider Myanmar sourcing as conscription rules enforced

Myanmar has introduced new rules on conscription, which makes young citizens subject to a minimum of two years military service, effective immediately. The Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business has warned that the new rules are likely to deter apparel companies from the country.

From 10 February 2024 onward, male citizens aged between 18 and 45, and female citizens aged between 18 and 35, must serve in Myanmar’s military for a minimum of two years. Workers and students living abroad are also expected to return to the country to serve.

The new conscription rules could see 60,000 additional citizens recruited into Myanmar’s army.

The Fair Wear Foundation has warned that more than 90% of garment workers in Myanmar are aged between 18-35 and many are said to be fearful of the new conscription law. The organisation claims that detailed information about workers could easily be sourced from factories.

Fair Wear warns that workforce data has already been collected from factory workers since the new rules were introduced, with reports of some factories already asking staff to fill in forms.

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The Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business told Just Style that companies operating in Myanmar will need to prioritise staff safety in the region.

Vicky Bowman, director for the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, said: “Any legal requirement placed on companies to facilitate recruitment or otherwise provide support for military conscription is likely to deter companies from sourcing from Myanmar, as well as jeopardise the continued presence in Myanmar of foreign investors committed to respect human rights.” 

Bowman noted that Myanmar’s 2010 Military Service Law does not appear to oblige employers to facilitate military recruitment. However, she added: “I recommend that if a workplace is supporting staff to enrol in the separate eID/smart card exercise which has been running for the last six months and is unrelated to the conscription law, they should pause their involvement, so as to allay staff concerns.”

Bowman added: “Companies should also ensure that employee personal data held by factories is protected, and that any external requests for staff data are referred to company management. Any sharing of personal data needs to be compliant with the data protection provisions in the Electronic Transactions Law.”

The new rules are believed to be a response to increased pressure from rebel forces in the country, with Reuters reporting a “heavy toll” on Myanmar’s military.

Last week, local reports of forced recruitment emerged in the Yangdon, Mandalay, Sagaing and Ayarwaddy regions. Myanmar’s military says it plans to collect data until April 2024, after which it plans to train 5,000 citizens each month.

Fair Wear has warned the conscription rules could pose a significant risk for garment production and supply chain stability, as well as human rights in the country, and suggested its members reassess their sourcing policy for Myanmar.

Last year, Swedish fashion giant H&M announced plans for a “phased exit” from Myanmar following allegations of human rights abuses in the country.

In January 2024, Human Rights Resource Centre reported worsening conditions for garment workers in Myanmar with brands accused of “failing to protect workers”.