By Kate Jelly*- Newsweek
International fashion brands that began sourcing from Myanmar during the country’s transition to democracy are now profiting from its descent into dictatorship.
Since the military takeover two years ago, labor rights in Myanmar have seen significant erosion. Often acting in collusion with the regime, business owners are exploiting workers’ vulnerabilities in the face of a crumbling economy and shrinking employment opportunities.
“Factory owners are taking advantage of the bad politics,” a Myanmar-based trade unionist told a local news source.
In collaboration with partners both inside and outside Myanmar, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) has recorded nearly 200 cases of rights violations in the garment sector since the coup, affecting more than 100,000 workers. Almost half were recorded in the past six months alone—highlighting the rapidly worsening circumstances for this critical workforce.
Nearly 60 percent of the violations included allegations of reduced wages and wage theft— occurring amid an economic recession and cost-of-living crisis, with 40 percent of the population living below the national poverty line. We also recorded frequent allegations of inhumane work rates and mandatory overtime (41 percent of cases) and harassment, intimidation and abuse (34 percent). Thirty percent of the violations alleged gender-based violence: a damning finding in a sector overwhelmingly staffed by women. Disturbingly, two reports alleged workers being killed when the military opened fire in response to protests.
A few factors are behind the deteriorating circumstances for these vital participants in the country’s trembling economy.
First, the regime’s brutal suppression of trade unions. Union leaders and members are being imprisoned, killed, or forced into hiding. It’s no coincidence a quarter of the rights violations we identified involved direct attacks on freedom of association—a foundational right without which workers have no recourse to organize or demand remedy for the other kinds of abuses we’ve tracked.
A compounding factor, according to Bent Gehrt, Southeast Asia director at Worker Rights Consortium, is that workers’ production targets have risen dramatically since the coup, as factories compete to secure orders from a decreasing pool of buyers. Workers allege often having to work overtime, for which they are routinely denied payment. Other reports include workers skipping meals and water to meet excessive targets, fainting after being forced to work all night (without overtime), and being robbed and sexually assaulted while returning home late at night from overtime shifts.
“Buyers came to Myanmar in the first place to take advantage of the cheap labor there,” said Gehrt, “and now they are staying because it is even cheaper in dollar terms after the military coup.”
That cheap labor is allegedly linked to the supply chains of famous brands. Workers at a factory supplying H&M reported suffering humiliating punishments, including being forced by their supervisor to walk on their knees, for failing to meet their targets. A worker at a factory supplying Carhartt spoke out about psychological damage and exhaustion inflicted by ongoing verbal abuse from supervisors and onerous production targets. When BHRRC invited response from these, plus 41 other brands reportedly buying from factories where recorded abuses are alleged to have taken place, more than 40 percent remained silent.
On the two-year anniversary of the coup in Myanmar, it has never been clearer that silence and inaction have no place in responsible business. Rather, in this context, brands must undertake heightened human rights due diligence to guarantee decent work, fair wages, and essential dignities and freedoms. This requires direct engagement with workers and their representatives, facilitated by civil society rather than third party auditors, the limitations of which are well-documented and further demonstrated in Myanmar by reported cases of workers being coerced to conceal rights abuses from inspectors. Where this is not possible, brands must look to exit responsibly, as some labor organizations and unions have called on them to do.
The complexities around exit are real, with severe implications for the economy—Myanmar’s garment exports amounted to almost 10 percent of total exports (nearly $4 billion) in 2022. Mass departure risks plunging an already vulnerable workforce into destitution. Yet, companies that stay in Myanmar can do so only with real assurance of respect for the human rights of the workers that facilitate their profits.
In our research, good practice examples of efforts to secure this assurance have so far proven limited. Less than one third of brands say they have conducted investigations on site or through worker representatives and civil society organizations, and only 19 percent have mentioned remediation for affected workers. These cases demonstrate better practices are possible—and it is far past time that they are adopted by all international brands sourcing from Myanmar’s factories.
On the second anniversary of the country’s military takeover, the crumbling state of human rights—including rising worker abuse—in Myanmar demands it.
*Kate Jelly is a labor rights researcher at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre.