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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27 May 2020

Myanmar: Six labour activists imprisoned following garment factory protests over wages & paid leave during pandemic

Author: Kyaw Lin Htoon, Frontier Myanmar

"Is COVID-19 a smokescreen for labour abuses?", 27 May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has... resulted in large-scale layoffs as well as fewer opportunities for overtime pay, which is often crucial for making ends meet. In several cases, factory owners have fled without paying workers their salary, let alone compensation for losing their jobs... [A]t factories that have tried to maintain normal operations, there have been tense standoffs between managers and workers who have demanded the temporary closure of factories on full pay because of the risk that COVID-19 could spread quickly... National-level negotiations between labour representatives, employers and the government over a shutdown for all of April with paid leave for workers failed to produce a result. 

... When the Blue Diamond bag factory, which has about 300 workers, resumed production on May 2, 102 members of the basic labour union (as unions within a particular workplace are formally known) were told that, if they wanted to keep their jobs, they had to sign a pledge not to protest again...

[O]n May 4 [and 5, police dispersed the protestors and made arrests]... Dagon Seikkan Township Court sentenced the four men from ABFTU and SDUF, and the two remaining basic labour union leaders – mothers aged 31 and 34 – to three months’ imprisonment for three criminal offences... Legal action was taken against a further 27 people who were involved in the Dagon Seikkan protests under the same three offences. The [COVID-19] curfew and ban on gatherings... [being] against protesting workers – and the speed with which they were sentenced, in a criminal justice system where cases can drag on for months, if not years – has fed suspicions among labour activists that the pandemic is being used as a smokescreen for labour abuses and a crackdown on unions...

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8 May 2020

Garment workers in Myanmar & Cambodia allege factories are using COVID-19 as pretext to dismiss unionised workforce

Author: Elizabeth Paton, New York Times

"Union Garment Workers Fear 'an Opportunity to Get Rid of Us'", 8 May 2020

Myan Mode... produces... for fashion companies like Mango and Zara. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, it has seen a decrease in orders from international retailers. That was why it let go almost half of its 1,274 workers in late March, the factory’s managing director said... Three fired sewing operators, however, said the factory was taking an opportunity to punish workers engaged in union activity... Maung Moe, Ye Yint and Ohnmar Myint — said that of the 571 who had been dismissed, 520 had belonged to the factory’s union... About 700 workers who did not belong to the union kept their jobs... Maung Moe... said he and other union members had been in discussions with the factory managers before the firings, demanding personal protective equipment and [physical distancing]...

[T]he fired... workers had protested outside the factory for weeks, watching as daily wage workers entered and... former colleagues left at midnight after overtime shifts. Eventually, management offered severance but not re-employment to the 571 fired workers, plus 49 employees who had walked out in solidarity. All but 79 eventually took the severance pay... 

On March 31, several dozen union workers at the Superl leatherwear factory... [in] Phnom Penh — which produces handbags for brands like Michael Kors, Tory Burch and Kate Spade — were told they were being let go. One was a woman who was six months pregnant. Soy Sros, a factory shop steward and the local president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, wrote about the company’s actions on Facebook... [and] was forced by factory management to take down her post and make a thumbprint on a warning letter accusing her of defamation. On April 2, she was... charged with posting fake information on social media. She is now in jail.

Superl, which is based in Hong Kong, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Michael Kors and Tory Burch, which regularly place orders at the factory. Another customer, Tapestry, the owner of Kate Spade, declined to comment...

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7 May 2020

Myanmar: Dismissed garment workers accuse factories of using COVID-19 as pretext for union-busting

Author: Nishita Jha, BuzzFeed News

"Zara's Billionaire Owner Was Praised For Helping In The Coronavirus Crisis. Workers In Myanmar Paid The Price.", 7 May 2020

... [M]ore than 500 workers at... two factories were laid off when they asked to be supplied with durable masks and for social distancing to be introduced to protect them from the coronavirus. One of the factories, Myan Mode, fired every single member of a workers’ union, along with a woman who had complained of being sexually harassed at the factory...

Inditex [said]... it was working with suppliers to ensure they were following official guidance to protect workers during the pandemic... [and] the dispute at Myan Mode had been at least partially resolved, with 29 sacked workers reinstated...

Another factory, Rui Ning, located in the same industrial complex as Myan Mode, had laid off 30% of its workers, most of whom were union members too...

Inditex said the dispute at Myan Mode with 29 workers had been resolved through dialogue, and that the factory had agreed to reinstate the protesting workers. The more than 500 workers who had accepted severance pay could possibly be able to return to the factory once it resumed work at full capacity...

The union worker said... more than 500 workers who were laid off still had no jobs, and the fact that they had accepted a paltry severance was being used against them. Myan Mode had failed to honor an agreement that it would not target the union and lay off workers during the pandemic... Myan Mode is still refusing to recognize the union officially, while it has hired hundreds of daily migrant workers who are not members of any union...


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