Challenging the Status Quo: Helping Workers Protect their Associational Rights in Myanmar

Freedom of association is a fundamental and critical right allowing workers to collectively demand better working conditions. Yet factory management around the world often deny workers this right, illegally terminating union leaders, and sometimes employing violence to quell union organizing. Buyers at the top of the supply chain generally fail to detect such violations or take meaningful action to reverse its chilling effect on workers. But a recent investigation by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) in a Burmese factory documented an exception to this general rule, setting an important precedent for workers’ associational rights in Myanmar and beyond.

In 2019, the WRC undertook an investigation into Myanmar Infochamp—a footwear factory and second-tier supplier for adidas and Vaude—and found that management had violated its employees’ associational rights. During the summer of 2018, 40 workers at Myanmar Infochamp formed a local trade union to address management’s practice of forcing employees to complete nonproduction-related work during the lunch break, verbal abuse, and nonpayment of a quarterly bonus. The union submitted a set of demands concerning these problems to management in August 2018. However, rather than negotiate with the newly formed union, management proceeded to fire the four union leaders, including the union president, and pressure them to sign resignation letters in September 2018. The union leaders refused to sign the letters. The union president further stated that she would file a complaint for her reinstatement. The firings were clearly retaliatory: the four dismissed workers constituted virtually the entire union leadership and they were the only workers terminated on that day. With these retaliatory dismissals, management made an example of the union leaders, sending a clear message to the remaining workforce.

Eventually three of the union leaders accepted a severance payment in lieu of reinstatement. The union president, however, continued to demand to be reinstated and refused to accept the offer of severance. Over the following months, she learned that Myanmar Infochamp had blacklisted her as she attempted to find a new job. She was initially offered a new job in the months following her wrongful dismissal from Myanmar Infochamp, but she was dismissed from that position after just one day. The union president applied for positions at seven other factories, all of which rejected her. During one of the interviews, the factory manager interviewing her said, “I have seen you before, I know your face!”, before telling her she was not hired.

Infochamp workers in front of the factory demanding the reinstatement of their union leaders.

Seeking assistance in attempting to reverse the retaliatory firings and secure redress for the union president’s blacklisting, the union leaders reached out to Action Labor Rights (ALR), a local labor rights group, who helped connect the union with the WRC and the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC). The WRC began working with the wrongfully terminated workers and their union to document the retaliatory firings and determine the major buyers at the factory. We engaged with adidas to secure the workers’ reinstatement and win compensation for the blacklisted union president. Adidas agreed to reach out to Myanmar Infochamp to ensure the factory’s commitment to implement the recommendations.

Unfortunately, Myanmar Infochamp informed adidas that the factory would close at the end of March 2019. In light of this information, the WRC, ALR and the CCC engaged adidas to ensure both that the union leaders, for whom reinstatement was no longer an option, would receive back pay dating from their firing in September 2018 and that all workers at the factory would receive their legally-owed severance pay. The brand agreed that it would ensure its supplier followed the law, and indeed, adidas was successful in making sure workers received severance and, in the case of the wrongfully fired union leaders, back pay. We were also able to engage adidas to ensure that the union president received an additional payment—the equivalent of seven months’ pay—on top of the back pay she was owed, since Myanmar Infochamp’s blacklisting had made it extremely difficult for her to secure new employment.

In cases of retaliatory termination, the reinstatement of the wrongfully fired workers with back pay is the only course of action that can end the climate of fear and chilling effect on workers’ associational rights created by management’s actions. However, this was impossible because of the factory’s closure. The WRC believes that, given the circumstances, securing compensation for the wrongfully terminated workers, including substantial compensation for the blacklisted worker was the best possible outcome. In addition, pressing a supplier to provide compensation to a worker it has blacklisted sets a crucial precedent. It makes clear to factory owners that blacklisting of union leaders can have significant costs and provides worker rights advocates with an important precedent that will help combat the insidious practice of blacklisting, and retaliation against union members more broadly.