Garment workers in Myanmar urge global brands to reject the coup
NEW YORK (AP) – Tin Tin Wei worked eleven hours a day, six days a week, sewing jackets in a factory in Myanmar. But she hasn’t sewed a single item of clothing since a coup in February.
Instead, the 26-year-old union organizer protested on the street – and tried to put international pressure on the newly installed junta.
Her union, the Myanmar Garment Workers’ Association, and others have held general strikes to protest the coup and are calling on major international brands such as H&M and Mango, which source some of their products in Myanmar, to denounce the takeover and apply more pressure to factories to protect workers from being laid off or harassed – or worse, because they participated in the protests.
“If we go back to work and work for the system, our future will be in the dark and we will lose our labor rights and even our human rights,” said Tin Tin Wei, who has worked in a clothing factory for many years 13.
The response from companies has so far been mixed. Few have announced plans to curtail their business in Myanmar. Most of the others have made no-action statements saying that while they denounce the coup, they want to support the workers by providing them with jobs.
The Tin Tin Wei union and the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar are also calling for extensive international sanctions – not the targeted sanctions some have imposed – to overthrow the junta that toppled the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
When international sanctions were dropped in the mid-2010s, when Myanmar began moving towards democracy and setting some labor standards after decades of military rule, Western brands looking to diversify their sourcing were drawn to the country’s cheap labor force. Broad sanctions would now paralyze this burgeoning clothing industry, which has grown rapidly in the last few years before the coronavirus pandemic, cutting orders and cutting jobs.
Widespread sanctions could destroy the livelihoods of more than 600,000 textile workers, but some union leaders say they would rather see massive layoffs than endure military repression.
“I have to make a sacrifice for our next generation in the short term and long term,” said Tin Tin Wei, the sole breadwinner in her family who receives food donations.
The civil disobedience movement, or CDM, has included railroad workers, truck drivers, hospitals, bank clerks, and many others determined to stifle the economy.
The goal is “no participation in the junta at all,” said Sein Htay, a migrant labor organizer who had returned to Myanmar from Thailand. “We believe CDM really works, so we are motivated to keep going.”
But the violent raids by Myanmar security forces on demonstrators, including textile workers, are escalating. troops shot dead at least 38 people on Sunday in an industrial suburb of Yangon – an area dominated by clothing factories – after Chinese-owned factories were set on fire. Tens of thousands of workers and their families fled the area in the days that followed.
The apparel industry plays a key role in Myanmar’s economy, particularly in the export sector. About a third of Myanmar’s total merchandising exports were textiles and apparel, valued at $ 4.59 billion in 2018. That’s an increase of 9%, or $ 900 million in 2012, when international sanctions were lifted according to the latest data from the European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar.
Due to favorable trade agreements, Myanmar’s clothing exports are mainly to the European Union, Japan and South Korea. The US accounts for 5.5% of Myanmar’s exports, with clothes, shoes and luggage making up the majority of that, according to clothing trade expert Sheng Lu.
But Myanmar still has a tiny share – less than 0.1% – of the total supply networks of fashion companies in the US and the European Union. And there are plenty of other alternatives for brands.
Even so, many adopt a wait and see attitude when it comes to long-term decisions. Experts note that it is not easy to move products to another country, nor is it easy to return to Myanmar once companies leave. In addition, some argue that Western companies play a role in reducing poverty by providing opportunities for workers in Myanmar to earn income while helping to improve labor standards there.
Working conditions in the factories were already poor before the February coup, but the unions had made some moves and given workers hope. And while the National League for Democracy, the party that was ousted in the takeover, didn’t proactively protect the unions, it didn’t persecute them or crack down on them, says Andrew Tillett-Saks, a union organizer in Southeast Asia who previously served Based in Myanmar.
Asian brands have remained calm about the turmoil so far. The American Apparel & Footwear Association, along with other groups such as the Fair Labor Association, condemned the coup and urged members to honor existing financial contracts with the factories there.
Steve Smith, CEO of LL Bean, said he was saddened by the situation in Myanmar, which he visited in 2019. Bean uses multiple factories and suppliers for three product lines.
Smith said there is backup production elsewhere, but it is important not to let the country down.
Other companies have reacted more strongly. Hennes & Mauritz and The Benetton Group, for example, have suspended all new orders from factories in Myanmar.
“Although we are not taking immediate action regarding our long-term presence in the country, we stopped placing new orders with our suppliers at this point,” H&M said in a statement. “This is due to our concern for people’s safety and an unpredictable situation that is limiting our ability to operate in the country.”
Spanish brand Mango said it will work with its trade and union partners around the world and locally in Myanmar to ensure there is no retaliation against factory workers or union leaders who are exercising their civil or union rights.
Moe Sandar Myint, chairman of the Myanmar Garment Workers’ Association, which organized small strikes on factory floors that later took to the streets, said brands are not doing enough to help workers. She wants to see “concrete action”.
Nearly 70% of the garment factories in Myanmar are owned by foreigners, according to the European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar, and a good portion of that is Chinese-owned. International brands that use the factories do not hire workers directly, often depending on a network of contractors and subcontractors to manufacture goods for them.
But companies have “tremendous influence in the industry,” said Tillett-Saks. “You have complete power over the supplier.”
Tin Tin Wei says the escalating military intimidation has frightened some workers at her factory. It is located in the Hlaing Thayar industrial area and was unionized five years ago. Of the 900 workers employed in the factory, 700 initially joined the protests, but that number dropped to 500 by early March, she said.
Moe Sandar Myint, who goes into hiding and moving from one safe house to another after police raided her home in early February, said she would continue fighting.
“I cannot allow my generation and my next generation to live under a different military leadership,” she said. “This is unacceptable.”