The Myanmar Labour Alliance, a coalition of trade union federations and labour organisations, issued an open letter to members of the European Commission and the European Parliament in which they called for the denouncing of the EU-funded MADE in Myanmar (Multi-Stakeholder Alliance for Decent Employment in the Myanmar Apparel Industry) project.

The alliance alleges the MADE in Myanmar project, previously known as the SMART Myanmar project, will be implemented by the Sequa gGmbH and the European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar (EuroCham Myanmar) with the financing of the European Union, and says it has objected to the SMART Myanmar project for further undermining freedom of association at the workplace under the military coup.

“We will not participate in the MADE in Myanmar project,” the letter asserts, going on to detail the abuse trade union leaders have faced at the hands of the Myanmar military since the coup d’e’tat on 1 February 2021, which includes arrest warrants against trade unions and labour leaders.

“Across all sectors, and in particular in the garment sector, worker rights violations are rampant, as shown among others by the Business & Human Rights Resource Center’s garment worker allegations tracker, which monitors and publishes reports on human rights and labour abuses in the garment sector.”

The letter also references the findings from the Ethical Trade Initiative, which said it is not possible for businesses to apply normal human rights due diligence in Myanmar.

“The European Commission and the European Delegation to Myanmar have been expressing concerns about continuous job creation for workers, especially women workers in the garment export industry,” reads the letter. “The truth is that our members are risking their lives to go to work in industrial zones where martial law is applied. There is constant military intervention and repression of worker protests over wages and lay-offs, including showcase killings of worker leaders to stop workers from claiming their rights. Workers who have been falsely associated with anti-military activities or spoken out against rights violations have been intimidated with death threats, kidnapped, or arbitrarily terminated. The employers take advantage of the prevailing political situation to maintain poverty wages and deny workers’ rights. Companies cannot exercise due diligence to respect fundamental workers’ rights and human rights that are openly denied by the military regime. No individual or organisation can claim to be able to resolve and prevent the above violations because they can only be solved through cooperation with freely established organisations, especially with democratic trade unions in a free political situation.

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“The European Union has provided EUR3m to renew the MADE in Myanmar (Multi-Stakeholder Alliance for Decent Work in Myanmar Apparel Industry) project, which is also funded by private sector retailers and fashion brand companies.

“After the outbreak of the coup, the SMART Factories program has shifted to provide management–worker training for the establishment of Workplace Coordination Committees (WCC) in garment factories to replace legitimate trade unions and labour organisations… The program has no interest in addressing our complaints about this or workers’ complaints about their rights and working conditions. Nor has it any mandate and authority to address the military and employers’ interventions and establishment of the WCCs and yellow trade unions at the workplace. The project has become a tool for protecting the employer’s interests and a propaganda project that legitimises the military-controlled business environment under the SAC.”

It adds that “the claimed objectives” of SMART Myanmar / MADE in Myanmar to provide social compliance, workplace relations, industry level dialogue, bi-partite relations, public highlighted due diligence, knowledge hub, support labour rights organisations and trade unions, set up grievances mechanism are unachievable under the rule of the military regime, going as far as saying the “project only greenwashes exploitative business investments under the coup [and] legitimises a military-controlled labour relation and social dialogue mechanism.

“The European Commission should cease fundings and projects that lend legitimacy of any kind and means to the military junta under the SAC, including the Made in Myanmar project. The project is nothing else but an attempt at greenwashing the business environment under the SAC. It has no competence to prevent or mitigate but contributes to labour rights violations under the existing political situation in Myanmar.”

The letter also calls for the suspension of the Everything But Arms benefits to Myanmar and urges that the programmes are steered toward supporting the humanitarian and capacity-building programmes of the independent trade unions, labour, civil society organisations and the National Unity Government for the purpose of re-building democracy.

The European Commission and European Parliament were unable to return requests for comment at the time of going to press.

Speaking to Just Style, a spokesperson for SMART Myanmar confirmed the SMART Factories Programme has been continued under the MADE project and pointed us to recent comments made by the Ambassador of the European Union to Myanmar, Ranieri Sabatucci, about the project.

“Whilst we acknowledge and are immensely concerned about the state of labour compliance in Myanmar, we do believe that through the MADE project, we can mitigate and hopefully improve overall labour compliance in Myanmar. The project target group are garment workers and the project will work with all stakeholders of goodwill to address the significant challenges workers are currently facing.

“The option of not doing anything will cause massive unemployment and further exploitation of workers and as a responsible partner of Myanmar we believe that we should all try to stop this negative trend as best as we can.

“MADE project will engage in a number of activities aimed at improving environmental and labour compliance, including labour disputes and it will transparently publish information independently collected in this respect.”