IndustriALL Global Union and IndustriAll European Trade Union claim the Multi-Stakeholder Alliance for Decent Employment (MADE) in Myanmar project indirectly funds Myanmar’s military junta and fails to protect workers’ rights.

The unions are calling on the EU to stop supporting the project following recent arrests of workers linked to it.

The statement to the EU reads: “The presence of EU brands in Myanmar provides vital foreign exchange which sustains the military regime and facilitates the purchase of arms, ammunition, and fuel.”

The unions expressed their deep concern over the arrest of eight workers from two garment factories, as well as two members of labour NGO Action Labour Rights, which they say collaborates with the EU, EU-based brands, and the MADE in Myanmar project.

The unions believe these arrests highlight that freedom of association is not possible in Myanmar and the MADE project does not protect labour activists from the military junta.

The unions explain that on 10 June seven workers at the Hosheng Myanmar Garment Factory in Yangon were dismissed after demanding negotiations with their employer on working conditions and a wage increase through enhanced skill and seniority bonuses.

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The factory, which allegedly manufactures for the global fashion brand Zara, witnessed a subsequent strike of around 600 workers on 12 June, seeking the reinstatement of the workers.

However, the unions claim the strike was forcibly ended on 13 June when the military intervened to threaten the workforce.

The statement explains the seven workers who had advocated for improved pay, along with a female worker leader, were subsequently fired and arrested. Five more workers are thought to have been arrested after this with one being forced into hiding.

The unions state these workers have been charged with incitement (505/a of the Myanmar penal code) and will be subjected to a military court as the industrial zones are under martial law.

An Inditex spokesperson tells JustStyle exclusively that Inditex is in the process of a phased and responsible exit from Myanmar, following IndustriALL’s call. They added:

“As a result, we continue to reduce the number of active manufacturers in the country. Events in this factory represent a severe breach of our supplier code of conduct, specifically in relation to freedom of association which we consider non-negotiable.

“We have decided to block the possibility of our suppliers working with this factory. In addition, we have urged this manufacturer and their related supplier to take all immediate actions to prevent and remediate any harm to the workers´ rights.”

The unions emphasise that since the military coup in 2021, over 300 union members and activists have been arrested, and more than 50 have lost their lives and adds: “The military junta in Myanmar has banned nearly all unions, wiping out the fundamental right of freedom of association.”

It continues: “MADE offers a false sense of security that is dangerous for those who are in the frontline of industrial disputes. MADE offers no protection to workers’ representatives, and giving that impression makes the EU part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

The unions explain the letter received from the European Commission on 28 June 2023 states: “Trade unions still legally exist at factory and federation level and organisations committed to supporting workers’ rights continue to operate in the country. However, these cannot function normally due to security and reputational risks stemming from the complex and polarised political situation. MADE aims to support their resilience and ability to engage with business to resolve grievances.’’

However, the unions dispute this claim and after the military coup 16 of the most representative and democratic trade unions and labour NGOs were banned.

The unions point out that with the support of MADE, organisations such as Action Labour Rights have attempted to the fill the gap.

But, they argue: “With even workers and labour activists from these officially sanctioned organisations being fired, threatened, and arrested, we fail to see how MADE is in any way supporting their resilience and ability to engage with business to resolve grievances.”

The unions are keen to remind the European Commission of the European Parliament’s resolution on Myanmar which took place on 11 May 2023. They were pleased to see a huge amount of cross–party support for the final resolution, including the following demands:

  • Calls on the Commission to demonstrate that the Everything But Arms scheme does not benefit the junta or otherwise to temporarily withdraw the mechanism
  • Calls on the EU to demonstrate that any engagement with Myanmar, including by private companies and EU-based undertakings such as MADE, is subject to strengthened human rights due diligence processes to protect and guarantee workers’ rights.

The unions now expect the European Commission to provide concrete evidence that the Everything But Arms scheme is not benefiting the military junta (including via foreign exchange) and that MADE is actively strengthening human rights due diligence, noting the recent firings, military aggression, and arrests of labour activists linked to the MADE programme.

UK independent body, Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), endorsed IndustriALL Global Union’s framework principles to aid a responsible exit from Myanmar.

In May, the H&M Foundation donated to the Red Cross and Red Crescent in the wake of Cyclone Mocha, which hit Myanmar and Bangladesh.

This article was first published by IndustriALL.