The only way for international companies to respect workers' rights in Myanmar under the military junta is to withdraw
Since Myanmar’s military illegally seized power on 1 February 2021, garment workers – the majority of whom are women – have been on the frontline of the Civil Disobedience Movement, risking their lives and their livelihoods to demand an end to the dictatorship and to restore democracy in Myanmar.
The military has responded with deadly force. At least 27 union activists have been killed and 116 workers and unionists have been arrested from the labour movement. The military issued arrest warrants against me and 26 Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar leaders, and our passports have been cancelled and declared void.
The military is conducting door-to-door searches in workplaces, hostels and homes. Almost all union leaders have been forced to go into hiding, while those still working in the factories cannot speak up because of fear of repercussions. Factories are providing trade union member lists, contact numbers, addresses and photographs of trade union leaders to the military and police.
Factories aren’t alone. In fact, most employers in Myanmar are using the dictatorship to roll back all labour rights protected under national law and international human rights standards.
Freedom of association is now effectively prohibited in the country. Factories have warned employees they will be fired if they join a union or participate in any union activities. All collective bargaining agreements have been cancelled, and social dialogue is impossible since trade unions have been banned. The 16 labour rights organisations which make up the Myanmar Labour-Alliance have been declared illegal.
Garment workers producing clothes for international fashion brands are receiving less than US$2 per day – among the lowest wages in the world – and are forced to work overtime without pay. They are risking their lives because the industrial zones are under martial law and factories are not implementing COVID-19 safety precautions. Women workers are at even greater risk as gender-based violence and harassment is on the rise. Factories have sacked thousands of workers without paying owed wages or severance compensation, replacing them with temporary workers on a daily wage. Social protections for workers are non-existent.
The military is targeting, arresting, torturing and killing trade unionists and workers cooperating with trade unions to report labour rights violations in factories. Many factories have requested the presence of military or police to threaten workers. A worker can be condemned to indefinite imprisonment with hard labour, even over nothing. It is unsafe.
All the hard-won labour rights and protections my union and others have fought for over the past couple of decades have been completely erased by the military regime. After over a year of profound violations of fundamental labour rights, it is clear foreign brands and companies operating and producing in Myanmar cannot respect the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The situation is dire, and it is only getting worse.
It is impossible for companies to conduct human rights due diligence in Myanmar and respect workers’ rights. Workers have been threatened in order to prevent them from sharing information about labour rights violations. This means brands cannot know the extent of the abuses occurring in their supplier factories. It is also impossible for companies to prevent the risks to workers in Myanmar – the risk of being targeted, arrested, beaten, killed or forced into hiding by the military for being involved with a trade union or trying to report workplace violations to the brands.
For this reason, my union, together with a coalition of 200 organisations led by the Myanmar Labour-Alliance, is demanding all multinational companies and brands withdraw from Myanmar. When withdrawing, companies should consult with Myanmar’s trade unions and develop a responsible exit plan to ensure transparency and compensation is paid to all workers.
The coalition – which includes workers, farmers, students, teachers, medical professionals, lawyers, LGBT+ groups, youth and women’s organisations – is also calling for the EU Commission to suspend Myanmar’s access to European markets through its Everything but Arms trade programme, so the military can no longer profit from exports to the EU. But the EU has ignored our request, and repeated requests made by its Parliament, to suspend Myanmar’s trade preferences.
Comprehensive economic sanctions against Myanmar are crucial to cut off the dictatorship’s revenue stream.
These demands are supported by the Myanmar Labour-Alliance which, through its 16 members, represents the entire labour movement in the country.
We have tried hard to protect jobs and workers’ rights. But with every passing month, we see the military dictatorship is not disappearing. On the contrary, they are trying to buy time to strengthen and consolidate their rule. It is important, therefore, that we contribute to their immediate and permanent defeat. We have taken this position because the return to democracy is in our hands and it is our moral duty to make difficult decisions that will shorten the suffering of our people.
I appeal to international civil society, trade unions, governments and companies – listen to the voices of the people of Myanmar, those who are fighting to restore democracy, fighting to defend our lives and freedoms. Take action, and implement sanctions that will effectively cut the income streams of the military Junta and force it to return power to the elected civilian government.
We will remember which brands and companies left because they put moral dignity above profits. When the military dictatorship is defeated and this is all over, we will remember who supported us in this struggle and we will compensate them and facilitate their return to a democratic Myanmar.
Khaing Zar is the President of the Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar (IWFM), an executive committee member of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), and a member of the Myanmar Labour-Alliance