Myanmar: Garment workers allege factories are using COVID-19 to dismiss union members; Incl. company responses

Unions report Myan Mode, Rui-Ning and Huabo Times factories in Myanmar are using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to target and dismiss unionised workers. Inditex sources from all three factories, BESTSELLER buys from Rui Ning and Huabo Times, while MANGO and Primark are also buyers from Myan Mode and Huabo Times, respectively.  

On 28 March 2020, 571 workers – including all 520 members of the factory union – were dismissed from Myan Mode garment factory. While the factory has cited a decrease in orders due to COVID-19 as reason for the dismissals, they were made hours after union representatives requested increased protections against the risk of COVID-19 infection. Myan Mode has since dismissed a further 50 workers who walked out of the factory to protest against the dismissal of the union members. On 30 May, Myan Mode reached an agreement with the union to reinstate 25 fired unionised workers and recall hundreds of other fired union members when operations return to normal as the pandemic eases. Labour groups remain concerned that the brands have not pushed for the reinstatement of all dismissed union members. 

In early May 2020, Rui Ning factory laid off 324 workers – 298 of whom are union members – citing COVID-19 related reasons for the dismissals. Union leaders have accused Rui Ning of targeting them for dismissal due to their union affiliation, and report having since observed the factory hiring new workers who are not affiliated with the union.

On 14 May 2020, just three days after workers registered a new union due to fears that Huabo Times would make dismissals in response to COVID-19, factory management dismissed 26 unionised workers – including four union leaders – and a further 81 workers openly supportive of the newly formed union (107 workers in total). Workers report the factory said it needed to downsize due to the impact of COVID-19, however a few weeks later transferred workers from another factory into Huabo Times.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited Inditex, MANGO, BESTSELLER and Primark to respond to the allegations. The responses are included below.

We received a rejoinder from the workers' unions at Rui-Ning and Myan Mode factories who said the brands ignored their pleas for help as union members and leaders were targeted, and a rejoinder from Clean Clothes Campaign who said the brands have failed in their due diligence. Inditex, BESTSELLER and MANGO were invited to provide additional comment; Inditex provided an update. The materials are included below. 

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Article
15 July 2020

Commentary: COVID-19 has been 'weaponized' against unionists in Myanmar

Author: Ye Yint Khant Maung, TEACIRCLEOXFORD

"COVID-19 Weaponized Against Unionists in Myanmar", 9 July 2020

...The government has... dismissed unionists’ suggestions, disregarded their formal disputes, and used COVID-19 to justify intimidation and arrests of protestors. Employers have ignored COVID-19 related concerns raised by unionists... and used the pandemic as an opportunity to sack unionists en masse. The government and employers have weaponized COVID-19 to union-bust...

[At] a National Tripartite Dialogue Forum... [in March, union] Federations collectively called for the temporary shutdown of factories, with paid leave in April covered in part by the government. They also called for immediate actions to prevent the targeted termination of unionists without due process. Their recommendations were dismissed entirely...

[W]orkers [have] protested against unsafe and oppressive workplaces. Four factories from Dagon Seikkan township protested... in support of full-salary-factory closure. The factories were temporarily closed... without salary compensation. When the factories were reopened, these unionists were dismissed...

In Blue Diamond factory... workers began striking in... April ... One worker... told the media, “When we had nearly reached an agreement with the employer regarding April salaries, police cracked down on us and arrested our leaders and supporters.”... The employer filed two more articles against the two leaders for picketing and advocating for protest. There are many stories of unionists being ignored, dismissed, neglected, and then arrested for illegally striking...

Workers who have been dismissed have been unable to find work elsewhere...

Read the full post here

Item
22 June 2020

Inditex update on disputes at Rui Ning & Huabo Times factories

Author: Inditex

...We commit to following [the agreement reached at Myan Mode]... through to its... implementation... We continue to follow this approach in the case of Rui-Ning and Huabo Times... Since our response to BHRRC.... we are able to include the following updates: 

Rui- Ning: ...we continue to play a mediation role to build an agreement between the factory and the union with the support of our IndustriALL GFA General Coordinator... [T]he factory has shared its committment to reinstate the union president and to start discussions with worker representatives about priority hiring of workers impacted by the downsizing... to be overseen by a union and factory agreed third party. Rui-Ning has also committed to join the Smart Myanmar programme to improve industrial relations. We will continue to monitor and support the situation through to a resolution...

Huabo Times: Although other international brands are the principle customers... we carried out an investigation as soon as we became aware of the dispute. We have been in regular contact with the supplier to encourage them to resolve the situation through social dialogue... [which] has now been established... an initial meeting took place between the factory management, the Labour department representative and the union representatives of... Let’s Help Each Other (LHEO)...

[The full response is attached]

Download the full document here

Company response
22 June 2020

Primark response

Author: Primark

Primark's Code of Conduct clearly states that all workers have the right to join or form trade unions of their own choosing and to bargain collectively - the current pandemic has not altered our commitment to this principle, or any others in our Code. We take any suggestion that our Code has been breached very seriously and will always investigate.

We were aware of this allegation and an investigation is already underway. We are in contact with both the union and the supplier (Huabo Times), who has entered into dialogue with the union and the Ministry of Labour, to determine further details.

Once our investigation has concluded, if a breach has been identified we will work with the supplier on remediation.

NGO rejoinder
16 June 2020

CCC rejoinder re. reports of union busting at Myan Mode, Rui-Ning & Huabo Times factories

Author: Clean Clothes Campaign

"Union Busting in Myanmar: Myan Mode, Rui-Ning and Huabo Times factories", 16 June 2020

... Despite claims from the brands... their responses thus far do not address the core problem of discrimination against trade unionists. Further... the Huabo Times factory dismissals... presents yet another case of union discrimination in the Myanmar suppliers for Inditex and Bestseller (as well as Primark). In all three cases... full remedy is yet to be provided... [and] management refused to sit at the table with the union to address the... violations and negotiate a resolution...

[T]he Rui-Ning union... [says] the layoff list was presented only hours before the union members were dismissed, which makes “consultation” of the union a mockery... Rui-Ning employees reported working overtime in the past month, and at Huabo Times, within one week of the dismissals, 200 employees from another factory branch were... called in to finish production... evidencing that the dismissals had more to do with union discrimination than necessary downsizing...

Inditex, Bestseller and Mango [are obliged] to engage in meaningful due diligence, which includes engaging with stakeholders. However, none of these brands have directly spoken to the factory union involved despite, for example, Bestseller’s statement that they were willing to discuss the case with the complainant...

We welcome the Myan Mode agreement... however 545 workers are still waiting for justice. At Rui-Ning, recognition of the union [and]... an agreement... on rehiring 323 dismissed workers, is still outstanding. At Huabo Times... there is no [re]solution... Immediate steps required from Inditex, Bestseller and Mango are to ensure that the [factories'] management... negotiate in good faith with trade unions and fully remediate the rights violations. Resulting agreements should be supported by brands’ ongoing orders in the factories. Without this commitment, brands are failing in their due diligence... reducing such statements to nothing more than empty CSR rhetoric... Brands and retailers need to request that all suppliers develop clear policies to ensure that Covid-19 is not used as a cover for union busting...

Download the full document here

NGO rejoinder
15 June 2020

Rejoinder by worker unions at Myan Mode & Rui-Ning factories

Author: Worker unions at Myan Mode & Rui-Ning factories (affiliates of the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar)

Dear Inditex, Mango and Bestseller, We the workers... who produce your clothes, were deeply shocked and saddened by your public statements that brazenly distort what happened... We work 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week to make money for you... [for] factory wages of roughly $3 per day...

[You] promise[s] to protect our human rights... during the pandemic... However, we were alarmed when it became clear you would not protect our rights when our factories used COVID-19 to attack our unions. We called on you for help but you ignored us as our union members and union leaders were targeted for permanent dismissal as a means to destroy our unions...

[Y]our characterizations that the attacks... [are] “disputes” are false — these are blatant, irrefutable cases of discrimination against unionists. At Myan Mode factory, the employer attempted to permanently fire all 520 of our union members while continuing operations with roughly 700 non-union workers... Rui-Ning... fired 300 of our union members... several non-union workers with less than one year of service were retained... but our... union president was not... repeated attempts to negotiate... assurances for recall of our union members... have been rejected...

... [Y]our due diligence was to “investigate” by asking questions to our employers but not us... [Y]ou stated... dismissals at Rui-Ning... appeared legitimate... “done in accordance with Myanmar Labour Law”. This is hard to swallow since you... [know] our country’s weak labor laws fail to fully comply with international labor standards and your codes of conduct... Inditex, you claimed to have provided “mediation” at Myan Mode and yet you never communicated with us, despite our repeated requests... Mango, you claimed to be “in permanent conversations with  local unions” but in reality you sent us one email... but then we never heard back from you... Bestseller, you stated “...[you are] willing to discuss the case with the complainant” but you later clarified in private emails that you would only discuss our case with third parties – not us... the complainant...

[Y]our descriptions of diligently upholding your codes of conduct are dishonest... [At] Myan Mode... we repeatedly requested to negotiate a retrenchment plan that would not discriminate against our union members. You and the employer... refused... [A]fter great resistance... we could obtain a marginally better offer... [which] falls far short of your promise to respect freedom of association since more than 500 of our union members continue to suffer greatly from lack of income... At Rui-Ning, the employer still refuses to reinstate our union president and has only offered that our union members might be recalled when the pandemic eases...

We hope that our faith in you can be restored... we strongly urge you to enter direct dialogue with us... [Do] not walk away from doing business with these factories as a convenient way to avoid accountability... [At] Myan Mode, we seek assurances that you will enforce our agreement and increase your orders... so that our members will be recalled... [At] Rui-Ning... Our president must be immediately reinstated with back pay and our members must be given assurances of recall at the soonest possible date. Additionally, health and safety conditions... must be improved... Finally... any future due diligence efforts by you... [must] include engagements with our unions...

Download the full document here

Article
15 June 2020

Superl factory drops charges against union leader, amid fears garment workers rights' at risk during COVID-19

Author: Annie Kelly & Harriet Grant, The Guardian

"Jailed for a Facebook post: garment workers' rights at risk during Covid-19", 16 June 2020

On... 31 March.... Soy Sros, a young Cambodian garment worker... posted... on Facebook... the factory’s plans to... dismiss 88 workers... Superl Holdings, which makes luxury handbags for Michael Kors, Jimmy Choo, Kate Spade, Coach and Versace... filed criminal charges, claiming that she had incited social unrest, defamed the factory and spread “fake news”. The Cambodian courts charged her with an additional two criminal charges for provocation... that carry prison terms of up to three years...The treatment of Sros... [and] silence of the brands... is striking terror into the Cambodian garment worker community. It is also adding to fears among labour rights campaigners that Covid-19 is providing cover for an industry-wide suppression of workers’ voices across the apparels industry. Sros, who is also a union representative... spent 55 days in pre-trial detention... 

At the Huabo Times factory in [Myanmar]... unions say that 107 workers were dismissed under the guise of Covid-19 and 26 were members of a union only started a few days earlier. Of the other 81 workers, the majority were openly supportive of the union... a worker [said]...“Three days after we registered a new union they dismissed the staff. They used the excuse of the impact of Covid-19 and said they had to reduce the workforce but a few weeks later they transferred the workers from another factory into Huabo Times.” Primark, Zara and Mango say they are committed to ensuring workers can unionise, and are launching investigations and working with their suppliers to resolve any issues. The factory management at Huabo Times could not be reached for comment.

In Cambodia, media coverage and campaigning by Sros’ union... has seen Superl Holdings agree to drop the charges. Sros is now back at work but the criminal charges filed by the government currently still stand...

Read the full post here

Article
9 June 2020

Asia: Intl. car & fashion brands investigate reports that COVID-19 has fuelled union-busting in their supply chains

Author: Matt Blomberg & Nanchanok Wongsamuth, Thomson Reuters Foundation

"Top brands probe 'union-busting' as virus spurs sackings at factories in Asia", 9 June 2020

Major brands... are investigating reports of mass sackings of union workers in their supply chains, amid fears from labour advocates that coronavirus has fuelled 'union-busting' at factories across Southeast Asia... BMW said it had set up a "response team" to pursue a complaint that one of its Thai suppliers, Sunstar Engineering, targeted unionists when it sacked 94 factory workers in May... The leader of the in-house union... said all but one of the sacked workers were members, while others who were not fired were instead pressured to leave the union...

Fashion brands Bestseller, Mango, Primark and Zara said they had launched probes into reports of union-busting in Myanmar. "We acknowledge an increased risk of union-busting during COVID-19 ... (and) have therefore increased our due diligence," said... Bestseller.

In one case, labour leaders and industry watchers said the Huabo Times factory in Pathein fired four union executives and 103 members three days after the union had been registered. Inditex-owned Zara confirmed it was looking into the issue, while Bestseller and Britain-based Primark said they were also investigating but that the sackings were in line with Myanmar's labour laws...

Read the full post here

Company response
8 June 2020

Inditex response

Author: Inditex

... We understand from the Myanmode garment factory management that a dispute occurred as a result of downsizing and to maintain social distancing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We are pleased that the dispute at this supplier factory has now been resolved through social dialogue and that management has agreed to reinstate the affected workers following Inditex mediation. Specifically, the agreement includes the following relevant points: - Management has agreed to reinstate 75 of the affected workers retaining their previous positions, benefits, wages and service years and the remaining 545 dismissed workers will be rehired progressively once the company resumes normal business and the COVID-19 situation stabilises. - The management commits not to discriminate against the union. - If the factory needs to reduce workforce for credible reasons again, the union or Workplace Coordinating Committee organization members will be consulted and Myanmar Labor Law rules and regulations will be followed. - The workers commit to cooperate to improve the factory’s productivity and quality level and wear PPE for their workplace safety. - The factory will establish an external “Monitoring Committee” in cooperation with entities such as the ILO to supervise the factory through the agreement process. 

We understand from the Rui-Ning garment factory management that a dispute occurred as a result of downsizing and to maintain social distancing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We have been informed by the factory that this was done in accordance with Myanmar Labour Law and with prior consultation with the factory union, with whom the factory management shared the criteria used to determine which workers would be included in the downsize process – less than 1 year in service. In spite of being one of many customers of the factory, we are working hard to support a solution through social dialogue with the help of IndustriALL Global Union with which we have a longstanding framework agreement. As part of these efforts, the factory has committed to reinstate the worker representative involved in the downsizing. We will continue to monitor and support the situation through to its resolution...

[The full response is attached]

Download the full document here

Company response
8 June 2020

MANGO response

Author: MANGO

At MANGO we are conscious of the critical situation our industry is experiencing worldwide as a consequence of the COVID-19 health crisis.

We are aware that not only ourselves as a brand but also our chain of suppliers, and in particular the workers that make up the chain, are experiencing especially challenging times. This is why we are working hard to seek solutions in order to deal with it in the best way possible for everybody: employees, suppliers, society, etc. The best way is through alliances with key representatives of the sector, in order to provide a more effective joint response.

We understand the emergency and the need to ensure that the human rights of factory workers are respected, since they are the ones who are most vulnerable. We are maintaining a continuous dialogue with our suppliers, seeking joint solutions and commitments in order to protect business interests and the workers.

In the specific case of these factories in Myanmar, during the last month, we have been in permanent conversations with local unions in that country, Spanish union representatives and the managers of the factory and this case has been finally solved through an agreement between parts. The jointly cooperation and commitment to good faith negotiations have led to the final resolution beneficial to the employees and also to employer, the union and the brands in the case of Myanmode factory and hopefully in brief in Rui Ning as well.

Company response
5 June 2020

BESTSELLER response

Author: BESTSELLER

... Over the weeks following the events, we have done an investigation at Ruining in relation to the complaint made against the factory. Evidence provided to us suggests that approval for the lay-off was issued by the local labour department, the lay-off list was public to all employees, and the compensation was paid out to the workers on the 8th May. Here we can see 259 out of 264 workers who had been at the factory for between 3 months and 1 year signed and received the compensation. 4 workers were unable to get to the factory on that day (due to the transportation limitations at that time), and 1 worker (the union president who had also been at the factory less than a year) refused to accept the compensation.

The time records from May show that 6 union executive members remain in the factory, and we can also see that the majority of workers that remain at the factory have been there more than 1 year. In this case, and based on the evidence provided by the factory and discussions with the factory management and workers, as well as through contacting the local police station  - we have not been able to find any evidence supporting the complaints made against the factory. We are also not able to find any evidence of the attack from the local police.

Our regional representative is willing to discuss the case with the complainant, and we will continue to follow operations at this factory closely, however, based on the evidence provided by the factory to us, we currently accept that the factory has followed correct procedures...

[The full response is attached]

Download the full document here