Within the past two weeks, several apparel brands that put a pause on sourcing from Myanmar in response to February’s military coup in the country resumed their sourcing, drawn by cheap prices for apparel and a labor movement constrained by arbitrary arrests and violent suppression from the police and military. Despite the military’s unwillingness to restore democratic advances in the country or address the hundreds of nonviolent protesters—many of them garment workers, killed and maimed over the past three months—apparel brands, including Bestseller, H&M, and Primark, have chosen to prioritize profit over basic human rights and resume sourcing from Myanmar without any apparent consultations with labor unions and worker leaders.
If these brands had consulted with workers themselves and their independent trade unions, they would have found that the situation has not improved for garment workers in Myanmar. The military and police continue to target labor leaders for arrest, indefinite detention, and torture for their part in pro-democracy protests, while factory owners act with impunity, taking advantage of the country’s instability to violate existing labor protections and bringing to bear the abject violence of the state on workers who dare to speak out against this treatment and defend their rights.
The brands offered the following justifications for their decisions to resume sourcing:
Bestseller claims it is in close dialogue with local stakeholders about how to handle the return to sourcing from Myanmar. However, unions contacted by the WRC explained they have not been in dialogue with Bestseller. As it is ultimately the workers who need to make the decision on whether brands should continue to source from Myanmar, Bestseller needs to involve the local trade unions before resuming orders.
Bestseller claims that it commissioned a report that found no “reasonable grounds to assume that the three factories are located on plots of land that are owned, directly or indirectly, by the military”. This assumption seems mainly to be based on information provided by the suppliers themselves, where they claim, without providing clear evidence, that they are renting from private landholders and not the Ministry of Defense-controlled Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), as well as an audit carried out by Luther Law Firm into the payments for various zone services, which found that, at most, the factories are paying a few hundred dollars per year to the MEHL. The report also makes reference to another company—Myanmar Awba—located in the same zone, which explains that MEHL is the administrator and developer of the zone, but factories pay only around US$460 per annum to MEHL for services, which they believe is below cost, as if the MEHL is a charitable organization.
Most concerning, however, is that the appendices to the report include a letter from Justice for Myanmar that mentions an attachment that supposedly shows a leaked letter from the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) proving that the current owner of the plot housing the factory Rui-Ning Garment obtained his ownership through a military order in 2012 signed by Lt. Col. Aung Than Htun, the director of the Ngwe Pin Lae Industrial Zone. Clearly, if military personnel can transfer ownership of the land, this points to a much deeper involvement than what the report concludes.
It is puzzling that the letter from Justice for Myanmar is not discussed at length in the report, only briefly mentioned and dismissed by referring to Luther Law Firm, “who could not immediately accept the conclusions” of Justice for Myanmar without further explanation and that the MIC’s letter is not included in the appendices.
Finally, it should be noted that one of the three factories located in Ngwe Pin Lae IZ, Guotai Guohua Garment Myanmar Ltd, is a sister facility to one of the identified Bestseller suppliers (Guohua Glory), which subcontracted orders to Myanmar Royal Apollo. Myanmar Royal Apollo shut down early during the pandemic without paying workers their last wages and severance. More than a year later, workers at Myanmar Royal Apollo are still waiting for this compensation, which Bestseller has not required the owners of the factory to pay.
Like Bestseller, H&M also sources from factories inside industrial zones linked to the military. Three factories, Saung Oo Shwe Nay (Golden Sunshine) Co. Ltd., Myanmar Century Liaoyuan Knitted Wear Co. Ltd., and Jiu Sheng (Myanmar) Knitted Wear Co. Ltd. are located in Ngwe Pin Lae Industrial Zone—the same zone as Bestseller’s suppliers. In media reports, H&M does not defend itself against claims that the industrial zone and the factories have linkages to the military. It is also not clear if, before making the decision to resume sourcing, H&M had any extensive consultation with the unions representing the workers who would be producing their apparel.
Primark also sources from one factory, Kaixi (Myanmar) Lingerie Industrial Co Ltd., located in the industrial zone run by the military-linked MEHL. Primark also did not do any consultations with local trade unions before making the decision to return.
Overall, it is deeply concerning that brands are continuing their sourcing from Myanmar without any preconditions. With the ruthless junta still in power, and some union leaders under arrest or in hiding, there is no guarantee that workers’ rights will be respected at their suppliers in Myanmar. On the contrary, given that the unions are no longer able to operate effectively, it is easy to imagine that factories will take advantage of this to increase violations of workers’ basic rights with the full support of the brutal military and police apparatus currently suppressing democracy in Myanmar. It is unacceptable that brands would put their profits over the basic human rights and, indeed, the lives of the workers who make these profits possible.
Photo Source: K Media, Myanmar