EPAA textile worker in a garment factory in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city
NOS Nieuws•vandaag, 22:14
Fashion chain H&M is investigating twenty alleged cases of exploitation and other abuses in clothing factories in Myanmar. The company does so in response to a research report by a British human rights organization published today.
Trade unions and other interest groups are also raising the alarm about the deteriorating working conditions in clothing factories in Myanmar since the army seized power in the country in 2021.
A total of 156 alleged abuses were reported to the Business & Human Rights Resource Center by unions and factory workers between February 2022 and February 2023. That is a hundred more than a year earlier. The abuses allegedly took place in 124 different factories.
Things went wrong not only in factories where H&M has production. There were also 21 cases that could be linked to clothing factories where Inditex, parent company of Zara and Massimo Dutti, has clothing made. Inditex has not commented on the findings.
Lowering salaries and withholding wages is most common in the factories. There is also talk of wrongful dismissal, forced and unpaid overtime and violence against female employees. “All brands that are currently doing business in Myanmar should know that abuse is the order of the day,” said spokesman Carson Wind of the Schone Kleren Campagne (SKC) campaign group.
Textile workers can hardly do anything about it. Trade unions are opposed, sometimes with violence. The investigative report also mentions factory owners informing the junta about outspoken employees and alleged opposition supporters in the workplace. Soldiers come to factories to intimidate employees.
“We are deeply concerned about developments in Myanmar. It is becoming increasingly challenging to operate according to our standards and requirements,” H&M told Reuters news agency.
Since the coup d’état on February 1, 2021, Myanmar has been very unsettled. The military rulers fight with civilian militias, ethnic minorities and what is left of the opposition. According to the United Nations, the army is guilty of war crimes against its own people. Protesters and critics of the junta are in prison. The country’s economy has largely collapsed.
The textile industry is one of the main sources of income in Myanmar. After the coup, many international fashion companies that produce there took a wait-and-see attitude; it was uncertain what the arrival of the regime would mean for the sector.
Brands are now increasingly deciding to relocate their production after reports of human rights violations and an increasing number of abuses in clothing factories.
For example, Inditex announced at the end of last month that it is leaving Myanmar. In a statement, the company said it is responding to a call from IndustriALL, a global trade union federation, to stop manufacturing in the country. Inditex said it is pursuing “a responsible exit”, but did not say how and when.
Another Spanish fast fashion player, Mango, also announced his departure last month. Last year, Primark decided not to hire Myanmar clothing factories anymore.
All brands currently doing business in Myanmar should know that abuse is commonplace.
Clean Clothes Campaign
That is not to say that garment workers are better off. Fast fashion companies have come under fire in recent years due to poor working conditions in production countries. But if these big fashion companies leave, the factories will be forced to take orders from under-the-radar companies that look for the lowest possible price and make no demands whatsoever on the treatment of factory workers. Mass layoffs are also lurking.
“It is of the utmost importance that the brands that leave can guarantee that they will not leave the garment workers in an even worse situation,” said SKC spokesman Wind.
Project of 3 million euros
Other companies, including H&M, want to stay for now. The brand belongs to a group of eighteen fashion companies participating in a European Union project to improve working conditions in clothing factories in Myanmar.
The EU believes that the fashion industry should continue to produce in the Southeast Asian country. The idea is that this is the only way companies can have a positive influence on the situation in the factories.
Local unions have criticized the project. It would only be meant to “make a good impression”. According to the trade unions, it is currently impossible to guarantee working conditions and human rights in Myanmar.
“Whether companies leave or stay, both have huge drawbacks,” says SKC. “If brands stay, they must at least take strict measures. They must, among other things, double the minimum wage, have no connection with the military and keep workers as safe as possible. But we don’t see that happening yet.”