Myanmar Garment Worker Allegations Tracker: Three years of military rule
The 1 February 2024 marks three years since the military takeover of Myanmar. The Resource Centre has been tracking labour rights abuse in Myanmar’s garment factories during this period, recording hundreds of attacks on garment workers’ human rights both in their workplaces and on the streets. In this latest update we examine allegations of abuse tracked over the past year and responses from international buyers – many familiar big brand names. Alongside, we have conducted anonymous* worker interviews with the aim of centring the everyday experience of this predominantly female and increasingly precarious workforce.
Between 1 August and 30 November 2023 we tracked 87 allegations of labour rights abuse in Myanmar linked to 65 international buyers and fashion brands - bringing the total number of allegations tracked by the Resource Centre since February 2021 to 401. Explore the latest update to our Myanmar Garment Worker Allegations Tracker ➡️
"Those of us who continue to work do so because we tolerate poor working conditions."
The actions taken by the military regime since February 2021 have resulted in far-reaching restrictions on basic civil liberties and trade union rights, as recently confirmed by the ILO Commission of Enquiry. For garment workers, this means tolerating worsening conditions in factories while at the same time highlighting both the disintegration of their rights at work and their ability to raise concerns with trade unions no longer able to operate at factory level. As one worker stated, ‘When something happens we don’t dare to say anything to our employers; we no longer have the channels to speak up or express or demand anything and we don’t know how the employers will react.’
Workers referred to fear of reprisal not just from employers through harassment or dismissal, but also the military, which has been persistently documented entering factories at management request. This is alongside an increase in allegations relating to surveillance, with interviewed workers similarly reporting confiscation of mobile phones and excessive use of CCTV as the norm; with cameras on each production line, in break rooms, at water points and corridors leading to toilet facilities. To this end, workers also highlighted the ongoing, albeit restricted, role and importance of trade unions in equipping workers with information of their rights at work: ‘It is important for us to work with [the union], as before we didn’t know about our labour rights and [the union] share knowledge on labour laws and what we need to know.’
While union leaders have reported just how difficult it is to represent individual workers when they have a problem at work, or to mount collective action in the form of work stoppages and strikes, the Resource Centre has documented numerous instances over the past three years where workers have asserted their rights in a hostile environment. Between February and July 2023, we tracked protests across seven factories where workers demanded a wage increase, and in some instances workers have reached settlements with their employers following ongoing mobilisation. This includes at the Gainway International (Myanmar) factory (allegedly supplying KIABI, H&M, ETAM, Primark & Carrefour), where workers’ demands for a wage increase to 5,600 kyats (approx. US$2.70) were met following protests involving 800 out of 900 of the factory’s workers.
The role of heightened due diligence
What is clear from garment workers’ testimony is that combined attacks on both labour rights and civic freedoms are having a considerable impact on the workforce. And while human and labour rights abuses are rampant throughout garment supply chains, brands sourcing from the country must pay particular attention to the military coup’s impact on the workers making the clothes they sell. The situation in Myanmar is very far from business as usual. International buyers must ensure they have heightened due diligence in place to meet the complexity of the sourcing environment.
The Resource Centre has tracked deeply concerning cases of workers having no choice but to sleep on the factory floor after working into the night in order to avoid breaking the regime-imposed curfew and risking potential arrest on the streets. With no transport provided by the factory, the largely female workforce has reported "harassment" from soldiers on their way home, as well as theft and violence. Five workers at one factory reported being robbed, and another stabbed while returning home from their overnight shifts. Interviewed workers have corroborated these allegations, describing a reality of sleeping at factories for days on end in the absence of decent working hours that allow them to return home or safe late-night transportation. They have reported a lack of facilities, from food and bedding to mosquito nets, and the psychological strain of being forced into darkness, with factory lights switched off at the end of the day’s production. The response to those who raise concerns with employers regarding these conditions makes it clear they are operating in an environment of impunity: “Management just says we are free to ‘use our own legs’ and leave if we don’t want to stay at the factory”.
As outlined in our August 2023 report Falling Out of Fashion: Garment worker abuse under military rule in Myanmar, the Resource Centre calls on brands sourcing from the country to undertake heightened due diligence to identify and mitigate human rights risk, and where this is not possible to undertake a responsible exit.
This worker testimony highlights the stress of balancing keeping jobs and ensuring their own safety. It further adds to the overwhelming body of evidence pointing towards the clear and immediate role for both local employers - and importantly international buyers continuing to source from the country - to step in and ensure that workers are able to work in safety.
“I had to work overtime continuously. I can’t refuse even [if] I am tired....if we are sick in the factory, we are not allowed to go back [home]. If it is late [at] 12 o'clock at night, we can't go home...[and] we have to sleep in the factory...We're running ourselves ragged.”
— Garment worker at Kittenish Knitting Garment Factory, reported by Myanmar Labour News
2023 round-up: What were the most documented types of abuse?
The role of brands
As our data shows, allegations of labour rights abuse in the country's garment sector continue to increase, not just in frequency but also in severity. And while some brands have taken the decision to divest from Myanmar- including a new wave of companies during 2023, from Inditex to H&M and Lidl- many international fashion brands continue to profit from the political and economic status quo in the country. Three years after the coup and amid overwhelming evidence of attacks on worker rights and freedom of association and assembly, brands sourcing from Myanmar have an unequivocal obligation to conduct heightened human rights due diligence on their supply chains. Moreover, given the stated commitment by those international brands continuing to source from the country to maintain worker livelihoods, more must be done to show how they are ensuring workers are paid a decent wage and are safe at work. Where heightened due diligence is not possible international standards are clear: brands must divest through a framework of responsible exit and in coordination with workers and their trade unions.
As workers continue to navigate resisting a repressive regime and escalating labour rights crisis while putting food on the table, fashion brands cannot continue to look away from these allegations.
*Interviews with 7 workers took place on 8 January 2024 and interviewed workers have been anonymised to protect their identity and safety. The Resource Centre thanks Solidarity Trade Union of Myanmar (STUM) for support in organising these interviews.
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