Fashion brands failing to protect workers from labour abuse in Myanmar
New data shows workers’ rights have been brutally repressed in the country – with little to no action from the brands they make clothes for.
Since the illegal military takeover in Myanmar two years ago, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has identified 198 cases of labour and human rights violations affecting at least 104,000 workers in Myanmar’s garment sector. Big fashion brands have failed to protect workers in their supply chains from widespread labour rights abuses with Inditex, Bestseller, Primark and H&M being linked to most documented allegations.
These abuses range from inhumane working conditions and wage theft to the use of violence, arbitrary arrest and killings. The most common allegations of abuse were reduced wages and wage theft (56%), followed by unfair dismissal (44%). Nearly one quarter of the allegations related to repression of the right to freedom of association, with rights groups confirming that unionisation in Myanmar is today nearly non-existent. Without related protections in place, these allegations are likely only the tip of the iceberg.
In many instances factory owners were the alleged perpetrators of this abuse, reportedly in collusion with Myanmar’s military. Fashion brands sourcing from these factories have in turn failed to conduct adequate human rights due diligence in the country as they often have to rely on factory owners or a third party to investigate conditions for workers on the ground (as indicated by 24% of brand responses to allegations). At least 37 fashion brands and retailers were linked to factories where violations took place, either as current or former buyers. Inditex was linked to the most cases of alleged abuses (15 cases), followed closely by H&M, Bestseller and Primark (13 cases each).
Additional data from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre painted a troubling picture of what is happening on the ground for the country’s garment workers, the majority of whom are women:
- Inhumane work rates and forced overtime accounted for 42% of overall cases;
- Gender-based violence and harassment (30%) continues to be a major concern;
- Workers have been denied leave in 25% of cases and faced unsafe working conditions in 20% of cases;
- Business-military collusion was recorded in 16% of recorded cases;
- Arbitrary arrests and detention were recorded in 11% of cases.
Natalie Swan, Head of Labour Rights, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “While the world focuses on other crises, Myanmar faces a perfect storm of protracted social, political and economic challenges – including economic recession and high levels of violence. Two years after Myanmar’s military coup, apparel brands sourcing from the country continue to show a concerning lack of action in ensuring respect for the rights of workers who make their clothes.
“Workers – the majority of whom are women – have been at the forefront of the struggle for democracy in Myanmar, and now face some of the worst repression and abuse. Wage theft, unfair sackings, attacks on workers’ leaders: these are all common as workers toil to make the clothes and shoes for our wardrobes. The clothing and sportswear brands buying from factories in Myanmar need to do far more to guarantee the clothes they sell across the globe are not stained with this exploitation.
“In the current circumstances, a ‘business-as-usual’ approach from brands is wholly inadequate. Apparel brands must act decisively to promote safety and economic security for garment workers in the short term, and to develop durable solutions in the long term that go well beyond the current approach to due diligence. This means conducting robust human rights due diligence, including engaging directly with workers and their representatives rather than simply relying on audits or reports from factory management, who are frequently reported to be in collusion with the military. Protecting workers' rights in their supply chains should be the top priority for brands still operating in Myanmar. Where this is not possible, other options, including responsible exit, must be considered.”
In March 2021, workers at the Sunview 2 factory in Myanmar (run by Solamoda Group, which supplied Fast Retailing – parent company of Gu and UNIQLO) were left in limbo after a fire halted operations. Approximately 1,300 factory employees are entitled to wages, severance and related terminal benefits amounting to MMK 2.409 billion (US $1.1 million). Solamoda has refused to pay this, citing financial hardship. Arbitration bodies sided with the factory over the workers, who have received only a token payment of MMK 77,000 ($37), less than 5% of what they are legally due.
Fast Retailing’s response has been criticised for making considerations based on the decision of the Arbitration Council, which civil society groups say lacks a legal basis and acts in favour of international investors.
Note to editors:
The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is an international NGO that tracks the human rights impacts (positive and negative) of more than 10,000 companies across nearly 200 countries. We seek responses from companies when concerns are raised by civil society.
Media contact: Priyanka Mogul (London-based), Media Officer, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, +44 (0) 7880 956239, [email protected]