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September 13, 2022

Brands urged to weigh Myanmar presence on human rights concerns

The Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) is encouraging garment brands and retailers sourcing from Myanmar to reassess their presence in the country after a report found human rights violations are taking place.

By Hannah Abdulla

A report commissioned by The Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) has found ETI’s Base Code standards, a set of workers’ rights standards that are a global reference for responsible business practice, are not being met, with the ETI saying it is not possible for businesses to apply normal human rights due diligence in Myanmar.

The report provides credible evidence of forced labour and exploitation at a sector level, with evidence of workers facing long hours, low wages, unpaid overtime, and harassment. In addition, workers in Myanmar are unable to exercise their right to freedom of association in a way that is aligned with international labour standards. The obstruction of this right is deeply concerning, particularly given its role in facilitating workers’ access to grievance mechanisms and their ability to negotiate with their employers.

Alongside this, the assessment finds a significant number of workers in precarious employment, as well as instances of sexual violence and reports suggesting child labour. Military action has placed substantial limitations on civic freedom, preventing civil society, and the international organisations upon which responsible businesses can usually rely, from operating as normal. These constraints make acting on behalf of workers or providing access to effective grievance mechanisms and/or remedy, highly risky for the individuals involved.

The report suggests that the ability of businesses to affect the wider policy and political environment is extremely limited in these conditions. Even within supplier factories, normal engagement is severely affected by a culture of fear and by practical considerations.

“Companies are therefore unlikely to be able to meaningfully consult with workers or their representatives, whilst their suppliers are subjected to demands which threaten the rights of their employees and counter efforts towards openness,” the ETI says. “In this environment, we conclude that brands will find it nearly impossible to conduct normal human rights due diligence, let alone the enhanced due diligence that the present situation in Myanmar demands.”

ETI recommendations for brands sourcing in Myanmar

The ETI is urging companies involved in garment manufacture for export to reassess their presence in Myanmar in line with the following recommendations, recognising that there will be a significant impact on workers whatever action is taken and steps to mitigate such impacts must be one of the prime considerations:

  1. Under UN Guiding Principles (UNGP) Principle 19, companies will have to consider the severity of the adverse impact on human rights: “the more severe the abuse, the more quickly the enterprise will need to see change before it takes a decision on whether it should end the relationship.” Therefore, where companies fail to demonstrate considerable progress in line with Principle 23, they must reconsider their presence in the country. During this period, business must refrain from making any additional investments in Myanmar.
  2. Should companies choose to remain under UNGP Principle 23, they must respect the principles of internationally recognised human rights. This includes meeting the elements of the ETI Base Code in all supplier factories to the greatest extent possible and a transparent demonstration of how they are doing so, including the measures they have put in place to ensure these standards are being met on an ongoing basis.
  3. Should companies choose to exit Myanmar they must do so responsibly, and in consultation with social partners. The impact of exiting Myanmar on workers and their families, needs to be a clear focus in this consultation.

“The report clearly indicates that there is evidence of gross human rights abuses in the garment manufacturing sector in Myanmar,” the ETI says. “However the scope of this report did not cover every factory. Furthermore the report did not indicate that the sector is a critical one either financially or politically for the military. Lastly the report was clear that in the absence of the employment provided in garment factories, significant numbers of workers would be much worse off and some will be made destitute. This latter reality must be taken into account in any action taken by business.”

At the end of August, the International Labour Organisation issued a report saying the military takeover in Myanmar has taken a severe toll on trade unions and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) providing services to workers and migrants.

The report titled: ‘Riding out the storm: Organizational resilience of trade unions and civil society organizations following the military takeover in Myanmar’  highlights how the targeted persecution of trade unions and CSOs, including arbitrary arrests, detentions, acts of violence, raids on homes and offices, seizure of equipment, threatening phone calls, interrogations and surveillance, have substantially limited their ability to operate.

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