Myanmar’s garment workers have risked their lives to report labour violations in the country, facing violent attacks, arrest, torture, killings – or being forced into hiding – according to a new report.

Fashion brands are failing to protect garment workers in Myanmar supply chains from the ongoing threat of widespread human rights abuse, a new report claims.

Wage theft, gender-based violence and harassment, inhumane work rates and mandatory overtime are some of the abuses the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRC) says Myanmar’s garment workers are dealing with.

In research published today (26 July 2022), these abuses have increased “significantly” since the illegal military takeover on 1 February 2021. The discoveries were made using a Myanmar Garment Worker Allegations Tracker developed by the BHRC. It lists allegations against 70 factories supplying at least 32 global fashion brands and retailers.

Collaborating with partners and allies, the Resource Centre says it has documented over 100 cases of labour and human rights violations against at least 60,800 workers in Myanmar’s garment sector.

Over half of the recorded cases included wage theft (55 cases), while other common violations included abusive work rates and mandatory overtime (35 cases) and attacks on freedom of association (31 cases). In addition, the Centre says it recorded the killing of seven workers by the military and armed security forces, while arbitrary arrests and detention of workers (15 cases) is another tactic used by the junta to silence critics. 

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Despite calls from local and international unions for international brands to withdraw from Myanmar “until democracy is restored”, only two companies – Tesco and Aldi South – have exited, the report says.

“We want the brands to know that workers are pressured by the factory to say good words when they contact the workers. We want the brands to know the reality on the ground,” a garment worker at the Huabo Times factory told BHRC in March this year.

Freedom of association

According to the BHRC, the right to freedom of association is all but non-existent under military rule. On 2 March 2021, 16 labour rights organisations were declared illegal. Almost a third (31) of cases in the tracker involved attacks against freedom of association, demonstrating the extent to which this right is threatened in the context of the coup. Factories have cancelled collective bargaining agreements, informed unions they are no longer recognised and warned employees they will be fired if they join a union or participate in any union activities.

In the last week, global unions have been calling on the European Union (EU) to suspend the Everything But Arms (EBA) agreement with Myanmar, given the garment industry remains “a vital source of foreign exchange” for the regime. Yet a spokesperson for the Commission to Just Style that any such action would, in fact, impact “hundreds of thousands” of garment workers, harming the wrong people and hardly affecting military interests.

Garment wage theft

Before the military takeover, garment workers could expect to make US$3.50 a day, according to the report. Under the current regime, garment workers report earning even less, with factories taking advantage of the coup to cut wages. Over half (55) of the cases in the tracker involved wage theft, including non-payment and underpayment of owed wages and non-payment of severance pay.

Another way factories reduce workers’ wages is by dismissing permanent workers and replacing them with – or even rehiring them as – temporary workers on a daily wage (who are entitled to receive only 75% of the minimum wage, equivalent to less than US$2 per day).

Harassment and voilence

According to BHRC, Myanmar’s garment workers – 90% of whom are women – have been on the frontline of the country’s Civil Disobedience Movement since the military illegally seized power, and have faced increasing levels of gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) under the regime. Although the research recorded 28 specific cases of alleged GBVH – including sexual harassment, physical and verbal abuse of women workers – with the majority of the country’s garment sector workforce being women, almost all abuses recorded constituted GBVH according to UN guidelines on women’s rights. 

Many abuse allegations were perpetrated directly by brand’s factory suppliers or by the military in collusion with those suppliers, the research found. Workers or unions suspected business-military collusion in 15% of recorded cases (16). Given garment factories and the military appear deeply intertwined, it is suspected this number could be far higher. 

Popular brands and retailers such as Inditex (Zara & Bershka, at least nine allegations), Lidl (eight allegations), H&M (six allegations) and Bestseller (nine allegations) were among those linked to the most abuse allegations. 

“Garment workers in Myanmar have been risking their lives to report labour rights violations in the country, only to be met with aggressive – even deadly – force to any opposition and dissent,” says Alysha Khambay, head of labour rights, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. “The cases we have documented are 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. 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. 

“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. Factories have taken advantage of the dictatorship to roll back the hard-won labour rights and protections unions have been fighting for over the past two decades and almost all union leaders have now been forced into hiding.”

She continues: “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 who make their clothes. In the current context it is virtually impossible to implement any effective human rights due diligence in the country. If brands cannot guarantee the protection of workers’ rights in their supply chains, a responsible exit from the country is the only way forward. They must use their leverage to show the illegal dictatorship that this abuse will not be tolerated, or risk being implicated in the continued suffering of workers.”  

Brand commitments

None of the brands contacted by Just Style offered an additional statement to those provided within the report. Some of which included:

Inditex – “Inditex is fully committed to respecting, protecting and promoting human rights within its entire supply chain. Respect for freedom of association is a key principle of Inditex’s Code of Conduct and the company expressly outlaws discrimination against workers’ representatives and union members.

“We are working closely with our suppliers and main partners in the implementation of IndustriALL proposed actions for the country, which clearly requires follow up of compliance with Inditex Code of Conduct, especially fair treatment of workers and no discrimination against its representatives.”

Tesco – “Through regular engagement with a range of stakeholders including IndustriALL, ACT brands and Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar (IWFM), initially we sought to maintain supply from Myanmar (in line with early recommendations from these stakeholders at the time).

“Tesco colleagues engaged in regular dialogue with suppliers, we did not cancel any orders and we monitored worker wages to ensure fair pay was upheld. We also did not apply any penalties for late orders and emphasised the importance of worker welfare and health and safety as the priority.

However, as the political situation in Myanmar continued to deteriorate, during which time the views of a range of stakeholders including Global Unions also changed, we took the decision to follow our responsible exit process which concluded in Spring 2022.”

Bestseller – “In the aftermath of the coup, Bestseller increased its due diligence, and put more resources in country to do our utmost to ensure that Bestseller products are made by workers whose rights are respected and that we are not contributing to harm in the post-coup context.

What that means is that we have clear RBC (Responsible Business Conduct) expectations for our suppliers that are integrated into commercial contracts.

“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 by ETI (Ethical Trading Initiative) and then decide on our future in Myanmar in dialogue with experts, NGOs, trade unions and other relevant stakeholders.”

adidas – “Adidas continues to monitor closely the situation in Myanmar and is fully engaged with our suppliers, to ensure that the rights of workers in our supply chain are upheld.”

Full brand and retailer responses can be found here.