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No Business as Usual in Myanmar! - It's Time for a Responsible Exit

by Jay Kerr

 
When Russia stared it’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, brands found themselves forced to act [...] Why are they not doing the same for their garment workers in Myanmar?

Since the military overturned democracy on 1st February 2021, the people in Myanmar have been engaged in a civil war to stop their country falling back into a full-scale military dictatorship. But, despite the atrocities and war crimes being committed by the military junta the fashion industry is attempting to carry on business as usual, even as the workers movement is calling on them to go.


Trade unions in Myanmar are reporting conditions of forced labour, sexual harassment, union busting and martial law, making it impossible for brands to operate safely in Myanmar while the military are in control. The Myanmar Labour Alliance are calling for brands to stop production and plan a responsible exit from the country until democracy is restored.


In January 2022, over 170 trade unions and civil society groups from around the world endorsed a statement put together by No Sweat and Global Women’s Strike, supporting the workers of Myanmar in their call for brands to stop business as usual and take action.


Since the attempted military coup on 1st February 2021, Myanmar has seen mass protests crushed by a brutal and deadly repression, the killing of almost 2000 protesters with the arrest of tens of thousands more, the displacement of almost a million people through indiscriminate violence, the systematic burning of hundreds of villages, and aerial bombing of refugee camps. The military is waging a war of attrition against the population that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has suggested could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.


In the garment industry, the double impact of the global pandemic and the military coup has meant some 220,000 jobs losses. Meanwhile wages have dropped so low as to reach US$1.94 a day, near the international poverty line, meaning those still in work don’t make enough to survive.

Trade unions have been outlawed - even declared terrorist organisations in some cases - making union activists vulnerable to arrest and imprisonment. Underground union activity reported numerous cases of abuse against workers in garment factories since the coup, ranging from sexual assault to forced labour, and military and police violence. Workers have even been arrested in factories for protesting against the regime.


Under these conditions, it is impossible for brands to do the due diligence needed to keep workers safe, and their continued presence in Myanmar undermines their own Codes of Conduct. Brands that continue to do business in Myanmar are turning a blind eye to this fact, ignoring the brutal attack on the people of Myanmar by a deadly regime, and are attempting to do business as usual while human rights are trampled into the ground.

 

Related: 5 Reasons Why Sustainable Fashion Matters Now

 

It’s time for a responsible exit


Brands claim to be staying in Myanmar in order to protect their workers from joblessness, but this rings hollow when we consider their actions during the pandemic - cancelling orders, closing factories for months without compensation and leaving workers to fend for themselves. A more likely reason for their continuation is that they have not been pressured into action, unlike in the case of Russia and Ukraine.


When Russia stared it’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, brands found themselves forced to act. They closed Russian operations, often furloughing workers, and made huge donations to the humanitarian efforts to support the Ukrainian people. They proved that, when pushed, they can put people before profit. Why are they not doing the same for their garment workers in Myanmar?


We call on brands to help end the war crimes in Myanmar, stop legitimising their military regime’s attempts to seize power by continuing to do business as usual, and implement a humanitarian approach to support the people that make their clothes. It is time for brands to make a responsible exit from Myanmar. But we do not want brands to cut and run.


Their reaction to Russia’s war, shows it is possible for brands to support the workers of Myanmar as they fight against the military regime. According to the Industrial Workers Federation Myanmar, the 30 brands that signed up to the ACT initiative (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) - which was suspended when the military outlawed trade unions - were together responsible for around 130,000 garment workers. A commitment to pay these workers’ a minimum wage of 4800 kyats a day ($2.50) or 126,000 kyats per month ($68) for one year would cost an estimated $106.8 million. Spread out across the 30 ACT brands, that comes to approximately $3.5 million each. This is a fraction of their annual profits, which are in the billions of dollars. The brands have the power to make a humanitarian intervention in Myanmar and prove that they really do care about their workers.

 

Myanmar Military: Never in Fashion is an international campaign supported by 200+ trade unions and civil society organisations from around the world. It is co-ordinated by Global Women