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17 Jun 2021

Tansy Hoskins, Dil Afrose Jahan, Nidia Bautista & Juan Mayorga, openDemocracy

Myanmar: Justin Brands 'does not confirm or deny' reports of workers killed at factory after calling for unpaid wages

"Report says soldiers shot three dead at Myanmar factory making US cowboy boots", 17 June 2021

When a small group of employees gathered outside the Xing Jia shoe factory on Monday 15 March, it had been shut for a week and they’d been told it would stay that way for three months...

By the end of the day, according to media reports that followed shortly after, several people were dead – shot by soldiers. But the US company that sells cowboy boots made in the factory denied these accounts...

Now labour rights campaigners in Myanmar have produced a report examining the events of that day... the group behind the report, Action Labor Rights (ALR), has been declared illegal by the military and its staff are currently in hiding...

On 15 March, local reports and international news outlets agree that workers gathered outside the factory and were joined by local people. Soldiers then shot at the crowd, killing several people.

The new report from ALR states that the Xing Jia workers were not there to attack the factory or to protest against the coup. They simply wanted to be paid.

It specifies that they had come to ask for 15 days’ wages plus four hours of overtime pay. Once they had received their money, many of them intended to return to their home towns to escape the violence of the industrial zone and wait for the factory to reopen. The small delegation was accompanied by supportive family members.

ALR’s report states that not long after the workers assembled, a military truck arrived and soldiers started shooting, without any dialogue or questions asked. When the shooting began, local people gathered to support the workers.

The report mentions that it is possible that the military opened fire because they thought the workers were there to set fire to the factory, as had happened recently with other factories that, like Xing Jia, had Chinese owners.

According to the report, the military used live ammunition and four men were shot, three of whom died. An estimated 17 people were then arrested, including women workers from the factory and their family members. The bodies of the dead were taken away by the military; the injured man was taken to hospital.

On 5 April, six of the people arrested outside Xing Jia were sentenced to three years in prison...The six men, including three Xing Jia workers, were sentenced by an army official, Major Hla Tun, at a military court and reportedly are now being held at Yangon’s...Insein Prison.

In the aftermath of the fatal shootings described in the report, it was discovered that the Xing Jia shoe factory supplied...cowboy boots destined for the malls and rodeos of the US.

Justin Brands owns a number of iconic footwear brands, including Justin Boots...

When the Xing Jia factory case was taken up by US-based labour rights monitoring organisation the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), it contacted the president of Justin Brands to alert the company to military violence at one of its supplier factories.

...Justin Brands acknowledged that it procures goods from Xing Jia, but repeated a statement from its “factory agents” who “called the stories a complete fabrication”. Justin Brands’ email then noted coverage by a Chinese newspaper...: “The Global Times even went as far by posted [sic] an article the following day rebuking the demonstrators’ claims clearing [sic] the lies.”

openDemocracy provided Justin Brands with a summary of the ALR report,....In a statement to openDemocracy, a lawyer appointed by Justin Brands said the company does not confirm or deny anything in the ALR report and is conducting an independent investigation into the Xing Jia factory shootings, which it hopes to complete in mid-June.