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YANGON – A new report claims fashion brands are failing to protect workers in Myanmar supply chains from the ongoing threat of human rights abuses. These include wage theft, gender-based violence and harassment, inhumane work rates and mandatory overtime. Popular brands and retailers such as Inditex (Zara & Bershka, at least 9 allegations), Lidl (8 allegations), H&M (6 allegations) and Bestseller (9 allegations) were among those linked to the most abuse allegations.

The study authors are now calling on fashion brands and retailers to make a “responsible exit” from Myanmar. However, where this will leave the tens of thousands of garment workers which depend on clothing exports for a living is not entirely clear. Fashion brands appear to be caught in a Catch-22. An exit from Myanmar would inevitably lead to cries that they are cutting and running from a situation they have little control over.

Research published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (The Resource Centre) revealed a significant increase in labour and human rights abuses of garment workers across Myanmar since the illegal military takeover on 1 February 2021.

The Resource Centre documented over 100 cases of labour and human rights violations against at least 60,800 workers in Myanmar’s garment sector, “illustrating the scale of abuse linked to global apparel brands sourcing from the country.”

Over half of the recorded cases included wage theft (55 cases), while other common violations included abusive work rates and mandatory overtime (35 cases) and attacks on freedom of association (31 cases). In addition, the NGO recorded the killing of seven workers by the military and armed security forces, while arbitrary arrests and detention of workers (15 cases) appeared a tactic used by the junta to silence critics. 

States the report: “Myanmar’s garment workers – 90 per cent of whom are women – have been on the frontline of the country’s Civil Disobedience Movement since the military illegally seized power, and have faced increasing levels of gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) under the regime. Although the research recorded 28 specific cases of alleged GBVH – including sexual harassment, physical and verbal abuse of women workers – with the majority of the country’s garment sector workforce being women, almost all abuses recorded constituted GBVH according to UN guidelines on women’s rights.

“Many abuse allegations were perpetrated directly by brand’s factory suppliers or by the military in collusion with those suppliers. Workers or unions suspected business-military collusion in 15 per cent of recorded cases (16). Given garment factories and the military appear deeply intertwined, it is suspected this number could be far higher.”

Alysha Khambay, head of labour rights, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “Garment workers in Myanmar have been risking their lives to report labour rights violations in the country, only to be met with aggressive – even deadly – force to any opposition and dissent. The cases we have documented are just the tip of the iceberg given the severe restrictions on civic freedoms and reporting under military rule, and the heightened risk of reprisals for workers who speak out against abuse. Brands must wake up to the harsh reality that decent working conditions no longer exist in Myanmar and continuing business as usual is no longer helping to ‘protect jobs and workers’, as has been repeatedly claimed. 

“When the military isn’t conducting door-to-door searches in hostels and homes, their presence is being requested by factories to threaten workers into silence. Factories have taken advantage of the dictatorship to roll back the hard-won labour rights and protections unions have been fighting for over the past two decades and almost all union leaders have now been forced into hiding.  

“With freedom of association curtailed to near non-existence, brands do not have clear oversight over their supply chains or the risks and abuse facing the workers who make their clothes. In the current context it is virtually impossible to implement any effective human rights due diligence in the country. If brands cannot guarantee the protection of workers’ rights in their supply chains, a responsible exit from the country is the only way forward. They must use their leverage to show the illegal dictatorship that this abuse will not be tolerated, or risk being implicated in the continued suffering of workers.”  

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