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23 Nov 2021

Louise Donovan & Maung Moe, VICE

Myanmar: Garment workers report increasing violence & alleged collusion between management and junta to target activists

"Violence Spikes As Myanmar Garment Workers Say Factories Are Colluding With the Junta", 23 November 2021

When the Myanmar military trucks and police motorbikes pulled up one May afternoon outside the garment factory...where Than Zaw was employed, he could do only one thing: run.

Security forces moved through rows of sewing machines at Gasan Apparel, hunting down employees...

...Than Zaw...said another employee described overhearing the factory’s manager on the phone to someone who he believed to be an official from the junta...

... security forces once again raided Gasan Apparel...Ma Moe Sandar Myint, leader of the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM)...said various members informed her that management at Gasan Apparel and Rui-Ning...have been “acting as informants” for the junta...

Months of labor rights violations, rising tensions and increasing violence culminated in the assassination of a human resources manager at Rui-Ning this month for his alleged cooperation with the military...

As the workers’ rights movement collapsed...managers who don’t want employees fighting labor violations or opposing the coup have been abusing their power to expel anyone considered troublemakers, say Myanmar-based unions and workers.

When security forces arrived at Gasan Apparel again...it was allegedly at the behest of the factory’s senior managers. There had been a weeks long workers' strike against salary and benefit cuts at the factory, which until recent months supplied...Mango, as well as...Komont and Westwood.

...No arrests were made, but soldiers took employees’ pictures, and many say they fear looming repercussions.

Just four days later...an HR manager at Rui-Ning factory, which supplied Bestseller until March and Zara owner Inditex until as recently as May, was shot dead. A civilian anti-junta resistance group known as Yangon Eagle took to Facebook to declare responsibility for the killing of the man named Kyaw Kyaw, accusing him of reporting on workers...

Half a dozen workers, as well as unions from both Gasan Apparel and Rui-Ning, say senior management has colluded with the military, providing security forces with the names of union leaders. Employees, unions and local media also say senior management at Gasan Apparel have personal ties with the military...

When security forces amassed outside the Rui-Ning factory one April afternoon, Yar Mhuu Lay...said he escaped...he says he saw the now-deceased HR manager Kyaw Kyaw talking to the military outside, and he later overheard Kyaw Kyaw talking about him on the phone with someone...

Fashion brands are still operating in more than 500 factories in Myanmar, according to the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association’s October 2021 newsletter. But in light of escalating rights abuses across the industry...some have begun pulling out. 

Zara’s parent company Inditex cut ties with Gasan Apparel in May and blocked Rui-Ning from its supply chain in early spring, meaning no orders can be placed with the factory, according to an individual familiar with the company’s sourcing in the region.

... Inditex said the wellbeing of workers throughout their supply chain “remains our priority” and supports the call by the IndustriALL global union for companies, including fashion brands, to cease operations in Myanmar.

Mango also confirmed it pulled production from Gasan Apparel in September but continues to operate in more factories across the country. The company said...it is “deeply worried” about the situation in Myanmar but is “following what is happening” on the ground through its local in-country teams and relationship with the CCOO, one of Spain’s largest unions, and “hopes” a solution can be found soon.

Neither Komont nor Westwood replied to multiple requests for comment. While Bestseller stopped placing new orders across its suppliers in August, H&M and Primark said in statements they are continuing to work with local stakeholders to address any issues that arise. ..

...management at Gasan Apparel denied allegations of collusion with security forces. “We didn’t call the police or the military,” said one manager who asked not to use their name over security concerns. “They came by themselves and we just talked in the office. The workers felt insecure and ran away. This is a misunderstanding.”

... the factory no longer has the orders to sustain itself and is now in the process of shutting down. Management claimed that workers will be given severance pay on Dec. 6. Rui-Ning management did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Some, meanwhile, fear the killing of Kyaw Kyaw at Rui-Ning this month could spark repercussions for garment workers...