World's biggest fashion brands rally support for Myanmar workers

26, May. 2020

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

By Yadana Htun

YANGON, NNA – Six European apparel giants have stepped in to rally support and obtain financial aid for tens of thousands of Myanmar workers who lost their jobs in the economic fallout caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.

Swedish H&M (Hennes & Mauritz) Group, Spanish Inditex known for “Zara” brand, Britain’s Next, Belgian-German-Dutch C&A, Denmark's Bestseller and Germany's Tachibo, have called out stakeholders of Myanmar’s garment and footwear industry to make “a rapid and coordinated joint approach and action” to help workers in their joint statement released recently.

As orders plunged and supply chains were disrupted by lockdowns across the world, garment factories have laid off staff as they scaled down or suspended operations totally in recent months.

In the middle of this month, the fashion giants have signed an agreement with suppliers and trade unions to protect the garment industry and workers in Myanmar from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agreement with the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) and the IndustriALL Global Union aims to keep the doors of the industry open to the world and its workers protected during and after the pandemic.

Among other things, the apparel brands expressed their commitment to secure financial aid for workers and ensure that their working environment comply with health and safety rules to protect workers from novel coronavirus transmission.

The clothing companies also expressed support for workers' rights in participation in union activities and tripartite dialogue to settle issues.

However, it remains to be seen how such promises would translate into concrete actions, said unionists. Workers and unions had called on stakeholders such as the government and factory owners to honor workers' rights when the coronavirus crisis worsened.

Over the past two months, thousands of workers from garment industry have lost their jobs overnight due to factory shutdowns and order cancellations. Most of them are female, and more are at risk of losing their livelihood as factories continue to reduce their workforce.

However, local and international unions have flagged such dismissals as an opportunity to dampen the efforts of the fledgling labor movement.

On March 28, Myan Mode, an apparel supplier to Zara, Mango and C&A, let go nearly half of its 1,274 workers. The factory cited cancellations of export orders as the reason.

However, it was noted that an overwhelmingly high number - or 520 of the 571 dismissed workers - are union members.

In protest, they carried out several weeks of demonstrations, arguing that their termination was unfair and not in line with the government regulations. They also claimed that the lay-offs were aimed at preventing their union from functioning.

While most of them gave up the fight after accepting a severance pay, 25 continued to push for justice for workers in an industry that is notorious for exploitative practices in decades in Asian countries including Myanmar.

Ye Yint, 30, the secretary of the Myan Mode Union, told NNA that in one protest, the remaining workers appealed to fashion brands to help them. About 50 workers, who joined them in the event, were sacked.

Said the exasperated union leader, “With the support of the brands, we were promised to get our jobs back. But the factory dismissed the 50 workers after they were absent from work while they were joining our protest. So how can we return to work without them?”

The union then contacted the apparel companies to make sure that all the 75 workers taking part in the justifiable protest are re-instated. It also sought their support to reform the union by allowing members to elect leaders in a democratic manner.

Welcoming the further support of the fashion companies, Ye Yint told NNA, “We trust the efforts of the global brands in settling the labor disputes though some of them have different effectiveness on the ground. Their involvement encourages us but we have to see if it actually works.”

Meanwhile, SMART Textile and Garments, a European Union funded project working to develop sustainable manufacturing in Myanmar's garment industry, had started giving emergency cash transfers to tens of thousands of workers whose livelihood was affected by the pandemic. It is doing this in stages. On Monday, it gave out another batch of aid to 5,017 garment workers.

According to European Chamber of Commerce Myanmar’ Garment Guide 2020, European countries accounted for 45 percent of Myanmar’s total garment exports valued at $4.6 billion in 2018.

As of August 2019, a total of 533 garment factories in Myanmar employ more than 400,000 workers and 42 percent of them employ between 1,000 and 2,000 workers each.