The unions’ message is clear: if international clothing manufacturers are serious about human rights and democracy, they must take their factories out now — or risk funding the the dictatorship, writes LAURA WATSON
Anti-coup protesters flash the three-finger sign of defiance during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar, April 23 2021
ON THE first anniversary of the military coup, over 170 organisations from over 20 countries around the world released a joint statement in support of a call by Myanmar unions for international fashion brands to pull out of Myanmar.
Signatories include trade unions from Britain, Europe and the US, among them the TUC and the ITUC, Unite, PCS, CWU, BFAWU, UCU, TSSA, Aslef and the AFL-CIO.
The statement launched a new international solidarity campaign, Myanmar Military: Never in Fashion, set up in response to the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions (ABFTU) and the Federation of General Workers Myanmar (FGWM).
In September 2021, these unions, which are two of the largest in Myanmar and are part of the Myanmar Labour Alliance, accused employers of working with the military to undermine workers rights and hand over protesters to the police. They called on international brands to stop sourcing their products from Myanmar suppliers.
Their call is now supported by a growing number of trade unions and civil society organisations from around the world, including women’s groups and is part of the wider call for comprehensive economic sanctions to help oust the military regime.
On February 1 2021, the military in Myanmar carried out a coup, arrested the elected members of the government and seized power as the State Administrative Council (SAC). Four days later, a general strike and street protest known as the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) began, demanding an end to dictatorship and the return of those elected. Ever since, millions of people have taken to the streets, risking their lives and their livelihoods.
The army and police have responded to these continuous peaceful protests with shooting into the crowds, bombing villages, mass arrests, rape and torture. Thousands of people have been killed and arrested. Over 300,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.
Women garment workers have been on the front line since the beginning and remain central to the CDM. The garment industry in Myanmar makes up $6bn of annual exports (accounting for more than 30 per cent of exports in 2019) and employs about 700,000 people. Ninety per cent of these workers are women; 76 per cent are young women who have migrated from rural areas to Yangon.
Despite wages for garment workers in Myanmar being among the lowest in the world, women send up to half their income home to support their families. The ILO reports that 250,000 workers have lost their jobs since the coup. Myanmar trade unions have made clear that the fashion brands obligation to ensure that their suppliers exercise “due diligence” towards their workers can no longer be met.
Employers are known to be collaborating with the army to destroy the trade union movement by informing on trade union activists and having them arrested, according to the statement from Myanmar Military: Never in Fashion. It also points out that many factories are located on military-owned land so the rent they pay funds the military.
Campaigners argue that the military’s economic clout makes it impossible to do business in the country without the military profiting financially, such as through taxes and gas and energy bills.
The elected National Unity Government voiced its support for sanctions in November 2021, saying that if companies cannot avoid paying the military, they should leave until democracy is restored.
Khaing Zar Aung, president of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM), executive committee member of the Confederation of Trade Union Myanmar (CTUM) and member of the Myanmar Labour Alliance, spoke at a webinar to launch the international statement, which was co-ordinated by the Global Women’s Strike and No Sweat.
“The brands and their lobbyists must stop insisting that they can stay in the country under these conditions,” she said. “By staying in the country, they objectively defend and legitimise a terrorist regime.”
Many brands subscribe to the industry agreement Act (Action, Collaboration, Transformation) that commits to ensuring the local factories producing their goods uphold workers’ rights to a living wage, collective bargaining, safety and other guidelines for termination and compensation. Act has ended operations in Myanmar, but many brands that have signed the agreement are still sourcing from Myanmar. Oil companies, including, Total and Chevron have also announced their withdrawal. So what are H&M, Primark, Adidas and other fashion brands waiting for?
The junta is also funding its war on the population by land grabbing, deforestation and further devastation of the natural environment. Ethnic communities who have long been targeted by the Burmese military, like the Rohingya were during the recent genocide, report an escalation of attacks and environmental destruction since the coup.
The courage and resilience of the mass movement to bring down the dictatorship has been extraordinary. On the anniversary of the coup people across the country held a “silent strike” — streets deserted, shops closed.
To join the campaign to tell H&M, Primark, Adidas and others that they must stop supporting this murderous dictatorship and leave Myanmar visit www.myanmarmilitaryneverinfashion.org.