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Myanmar’s garment industry at a glance
It has been two and half years since the military coup in Myanmar on 1 February 2021. During the past two and half years of the coup, the military regime has violently broken down all systems that were upholding human and labour rights in the country. 24,212 people have been arrested, 3,888 people have been killed, 19,729 people are still detained[i].
Over the past two and half years, the garment industry has been among the most affected sectors with more than 150 factories closing due to political instability, resulting in job losses for more than 200 000 workers in the garment sector alone. The situation until first half of 2023 witnessed a further deterioration of labour rights, including an absence of rule of law and the now rare existence of mechanisms for workers to access to remedy. With freedom of association not being respected and labour rights activists were being arrested, addressing labour rights’ violations has become all but impossible in Myanmar. Since Myanmar’s coup d’état in February 2021, the exchange rate of the dollar has skyrocketed. The prices of goods have also increased more than 2 and a half times, yet the minimum wage is still only 4,800 kyats or 1.5 US dollars a day, the lowest of all ASEAN countries[ii].
The situation of workers’ rights and production in Myanmar’s garment industry
The risks of labour rights violations in garment factories have increased drastically since the coup. Myanmar’s 108 000 garment workers from 212 cases face systemic labour and human rights abuses on a daily basis: forced and mandatory overtime without leave; gender-based violence and harassment; unsafe working conditions; extremely low pay; severance pay being refused after sudden job termination; and arbitrary arrests and detention[iii]. There has also been an increase in child labour and incidents of business-military collusion.
The number of complaints is also increasing month by month. Myanmar Labour News reported that there were 164 new stories about labour rights violations in 124 factories in 2022 and most of the cases are about wages theft, denial of rights, discrimination, slanderers, and overtime without paid [iv]. Trade union leaders and striking workers for their rights were being dismissed as well as military troop were invited to the factory by the employers to threaten the workers in these days. Most of these are not being effectively resolved, while the workers who filed the complaints to labour officials and available mechanism are being fired. Sub-contracting issues are also increasing and there are some cases where auditors are refused entry to factories. Labour rights organisations and trade unions in the country can only be contacted online and they have been unable to do any factory investigations, training, and in-person meetings.
In August 2023, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) released a report on the continued abuse of workers’ rights under the military rule in Myanmar. The report highlighted that urgent action is needed to protect workers in the Burmese garment sector. Among the key findings, it was found that wage reduction and wage theft continue to be the most reported allegations and that instances of gender-based violence and harassment are widespread.
Read the full report to see BHRRC’s recommendations for garment brands, governments, and investors.
Fair Wear’s position on Myanmar
Having been active in Myanmar since 2016, Fair Wear has regarded the country as one that carries additional risks regarding the implementation of labour rights, and as such, member brands active in the country have been required to take additional measures according to our Fair Wear Enhanced Monitoring Framework for Myanmar.
Since the start of the military coup, Fair Wear has called for an end to the increasingly violent crackdown against leaders of trade unions and labour rights organisations. In doing so, Fair Wear carefully monitors the situation and issues regular statements and guidance for member brands and non-member brands alike. Fair Wear also engages in continuous stakeholder consultation, and we updated our guidance on the heightened Human Rights Due Diligence in March 2022. Our brand liaisons have frequently consulted with member brands on how to apply the guidance.
In September 2022, Fair Wear’s multi-stakeholder Governing Board approved the adapted Fair Wear policy on business in Myanmar, which has been developed in consultation with local and international stakeholders and member brands. It aligns with calls made since September 2021 for all Fair Wear member brands to assess their presence in the country as a matter of urgency.
Fair Wear’s general requirements for brands sourcing in Myanmar have been adapted to include the expectation that member brands start disengagement from Myanmar.
Disengaging must be done responsibly (in line with our responsible exit policies and additional specific disengagement guidance for Myanmar developed by Fair Wear), which involves consultation with social partners, details of which should be shared with Fair Wear. The impact of disengaging from Myanmar on workers and their families must be a clear focus in this consultation.
In the exceptional case that a member brand chooses to remain engaged in the country, they must provide Fair Wear a rationale and demonstrate how they plan to adequately respect human rights by conducting human rights due diligence.
In either case, Fair Wear will guide member brands through the implementation of the policy.
At the moment, for the purpose of assessing labour rights in Myanmar, all of Fair Wear’s activities and services, such as training, factory visits by local experts, and verification audits, are halted. Our complaints helpline is however still available for workers to voice their concerns. Fair Wear continues to engage with workers and stakeholders to assist in the resolution of complaints. Fair Wear also provides regular country updates to member brands and is facilitating exchange across the industry, including non-member brands.
The commission of Inquiry of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is now investigating the decline of workers’ rights in Myanmar, especially with regards to Freedom of Association and the right to organise, as well as forced labour. The report of ILO Commission of Inquiry is expected to be approved by ILO governing body in November 2023. ILO Brief on Myanmar 2023 finds that Myanmar labour market remains fragile, recovery in employment has failed, the quality of jobs has declined with more workers pushed into the informal sector and labour productivity has also fallen. Global unions have been calling for renewed global efforts to restore democracy in Myanmar and have demanded multinationals to responsibly divest on the second anniversary of the military coup. The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) updated their demands for international businesses active in Myanmar: brands that decide to continue sourcing from Myanmar are required to conduct ongoing and heightened due diligence and protect workers’ rights, while those that decide to leave must exit responsibly. In February, 2023, IndustriALL Global Union and a number of garment brands with operations in Myanmar have jointly developed a framework for a responsible exit from the country.
The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) carried out its independent assessment on business and human rights in the garment sector in Myanmar. Their findings provide evidence of forced labour and exploitation at a sectoral level, where due diligence to monitor, prevent, mitigate and provide access to remedy on several human rights is extremely restricted. The assessment makes clear that the state does not take appropriate steps to ensure effective remedy through judicial, administrative, legislative, or other appropriate means. In addition, workers are unable to exercise their right to freedom of association, trade unions are unable to function, and leaders and members of unions face violence as well as increasingly being detained. ETI has since renewed its call for brands and retailers still sourcing from the country to reassess the human rights implications of their actions.
Fair Wear will continue to closely follow reports, statements and guidance by international stakeholders and organisations, and take them into account while implementing the new policy.
[i] Figures as of 4 August, 2023, according to AAPP.
[ii] According to the Department of Labour and Employment of the Philippines.
[iii] According to the Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) garment worker allegations tracker
Fair Wear policy on business in Myanmar