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13 Dec 2021

Matt Blomberg, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Myanmar: Garment workers fear job losses following calls for sanctions

"As Myanmar unions demand sanctions, garment workers fear for their jobs", 13 December 2021


Myanmar's clothing factories have cut more than 250,000 jobs since the military seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, unleashing economic turmoil and triggering sanctions against the ruling generals that anti-junta protesters want to see extended.

Trade unions, which have been at the fore of protests since the coup, are urging foreign fashion firms and governments to sever trade ties to pressure the military, though many low-paid garment workers...fear they would pay the price...

Heeding the demands of unions and rights groups for tougher action, the European Parliament called in October for a swift review of EU trade benefits that helped Myanmar's garment exports skyrocket over the last decade.

Aided by the bloc's Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme, which allows tax-free exports from developing countries, the sector made up 30% of all exports in 2019, worth $6.5 billion, and up from less than $1 billion in 2011, U.N. data shows.

Critics say EBA status...no longer applies to Myanmar following the death of an estimated 1,200 civilians since Feb. 1 and worsening labour conditions.

"The coup reversed the progress made during the democratization process, thereby undermining the conditions for granting EBA references," the EU Parliament said in an Oct. 7 resolution...

...factory zones have been placed under martial law and attacked by arsonists, and unionists have been targeted as 10 years of hard-won labour rights are rolled back, labour campaigners said...

In the economic and political chaos, the interests of some factory bosses and the military have aligned, campaigners said, citing reports of them collaborating to root out union leaders and other organisers...

The military junta could not immediately be reached for comment.

[IndustriALL has...backed a campaign by more than 180 Myanmar unions and civil society groups for foreign governments and companies to cut all economic ties with the country.

One of the campaign's leaders, Khaing Zar Aung, president of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar, said the potential for mass job losses was outweighed by the millions of people who were already "starving" due to the coup's economic impact...

But critics say deeper economic sanctions could do irreversible damage to the sector and put workers at further risk...

European labels H&M, Marks & Spencer and Primark said they were committed to Myanmar workers, as the Ethical Trade Initiative, a Britain-based supply chain watchdog, conducts an assessment of current conditions in the country.

The report is due to be completed early next year.

"In the meantime, we remain committed to all orders and our current suppliers," a Primark spokesperson said.