Inaction not an option: Businesses operating in Myanmar have a responsibility to stand up for workers
Businesses operating in Myanmar have failed to take sufficient action to listen to workers and communities who continue to suffer disproportionately under the military junta’s rule.
Since the attempted coup began on 1 February 2021, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (the Resource Centre) has approached 285 companies about their position on the military seizing control. The majority of companies were based in Japan (61), United States of America (37), China (34), Myanmar (19) and Singapore (17).
One year into the attempted military coup, it is clear the private sector has failed to meet their human rights obligations.
Companies have failed to respond to allegations of abuse about their Myanmar operations
The Resource Centre invited 69 companies to respond to specific allegations of abuse linked to their Myanmar operations. Only 29 companies responded and of those who did respond, only 35% provided substantive points addressing most or all concerns raised against them.
Allegations raised against companies’ operations in Myanmar ranged from complicity to labour rights abuses and even killings. There are also concerns around companies making irresponsible departures from the country when under pressure to severe business links with the military.
Case study: Steel-making company POSCO submitted a substantial response, stating it would suspend all dividend payments to Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) - one of two major conglomerates run by the Myanmar military - until it could be confirmed their dividend payments were not being used to perpetrate human rights violations. On 16 April 2021, POSCO released a statement concerning the rearrangement of its joint venture with MEHL. POSCO also has business links with the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) which has ties to Shwe gas project, a major offshore natural gas project providing the military junta with an important source of revenue.
Case study: Telenor’s departure from Myanmar - which it blamed on the deteriorating situation in the country - was branded "irresponsible” by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and 474 Myanmar-based civil society organisations (CSOs). This contrasts with its entry to Myanmar in 2014 where Telenor was the best practice example of due diligence and stood out as a responsible investor with a strong due diligence plan to mitigate risks of human rights harm. In its response to the Resource Centre regarding its withdrawal, Telenor stated it “is committed to respecting human rights, in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights and complying with the OECD guidelines for multinational companies”. Telenor has since sold its Myanmar business operations to the M1 Group - which insists it “has always, and will always, remain committed to upholding human rights... and will continue to engage constructively with all stakeholders.” However, Telenor's sale has been reportedly approved by the junta after the M1 Group partnered with a local firm linked to the military, raising concerns over the potential abuse of individuals’ sensitive data and associated risks to privacy and security.
Public commitments to human rights policies don't align with operations on the ground
The Resource Centre invited 224 companies to answer questions about their operations or investments in Myanmar and outline the steps they have taken, or will take, to uphold human rights. Only 25 companies (11%) responded and only eight of these companies provided substantive points to outline specifically how they would uphold human rights in Myanmar.
Case study: BHRRC approached oil majors Chevron and TotalEnergies in February 2021 following calls from civil society for businesses to cut ties with the military. At the time, the Chevron said, “Through the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, Chevron’s affiliate in Myanmar (UMOCL) has been working … to promote responsible investment and locally support business practices that contribute economically and socially to the development of the country.” TotalEnergies echoed this statement. But in January 2022, both companies did an about turn and announced their withdrawal from Myanmar, citing worsening humanitarian situation following the attempted coup. The onus is on Chevron and TotalEnergies to ensure a responsible exit; engaging with those affected – especially workers and civil society – and providing at least a six-month notice period.
Attacks against Human Rights Defenders and the impact on garment workers
Data from the Resource Centre also revealed a dramatic increase in attacks against Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) working on business and human rights issues in Myanmar. Workers have been disproportionately affected by the attempted military coup and continue to face increasingly insecure working conditions.
Many union leaders have been targeted for supporting workers’ rights or their role in strikes, with around 40% of individual attacks taking place against women HRDs (notably higher than the global average of 20%) who make up a significant proportion of union leaders in Myanmar. Women garment workers have been at the forefront of the resistance against the attempted coup and local unions representing thousands of workers are calling on international brands and retailers to divest from Myanmar and for immediate withdrawal of EU trade preferences, despite fears over job losses.
Case study: Clothing brands Bestseller, H&M and Primark are placing new orders from suppliers in Myanmar despite the continued instability. When approached by the Resource Centre, H&M said about 50,000 people rely on jobs at their suppliers for their livelihood and closing factories would result in unemployment. Meanwhile, Primark said it is committed to protecting the livelihoods of the people working in factories.
Primark was also invited to address an allegation that employees of a supplier factory were prevented from joining pro-democracy rallies. Primark said they launched an investigation, suspended the factory and will remediate issues.