Complaints over Myanmar’s manufacturing sector tripled in 2023, report finds

Labor rights abuses look set to surpass these if the trend set in the first three months of 2024 continues, unions said.
By Kiana Duncan for RFA
2024.04.05
Complaints over Myanmar’s manufacturing sector tripled in 2023, report finds When factory workers at Hong Miao Garment factory asked for a wage increase in 2023, junta soldiers were called to pressure them.
Myanmar Labor Society

Employees in Myanmar’s manufacturing sector reported three times as many labor violations in 2023 than the year before, according to a labor advocacy group’s report

Nearly 75% of factories accused of workplace violations are owned by Chinese nationals, according to the March 30 report in Myanmar Labour News. 

Reports increased from 164 to 438 in just one year, and factories committing these workers’ rights abuses jumped from 124 to 166, said Kyaw Gyi, founder of the Myanmar Labour Society. That trend in foreign investment surged by as many as 100 factories between 2022 and 2023.

“The workers have lost trust in the complaint mechanisms and it resulted in more abuses on the workers. Various forms of abuse in the workplaces have risen,” Kyaw Gyi told Radio Free Asia. “For example, before the coup, if apparel factory workers had to complete 100 orders, the workloads have been tripled now.”

The seizure of ministries and other government roles by Myanmar’s military during the 2021 coup d’etat has caused a lack of oversight for much of the manufacturing sector, union leaders told RFA. In addition to driving down wages and union-busting, junta-affiliated labor officers have created a lack of accountability for managers, who often rely on junta soldiers to intimidate workers attempting to negotiate or protest. 

In response to ongoing allegations of dismal working conditions and a public outcry, several large international brands have already vowed to begin withdrawing from the country in the three years following the coup due to deteriorating conditions. 

Despite vowing to withdraw from the country, factories supplying brands like H&M, Zara and Primark continued to be among the most frequently cited by workers for reducing wages, forcing employees to work overtime and endure verbal abuse by management. 

However, these brands are among the most affected by public pressure, providing an incentive to improve working conditions, union leaders and labor advocacy groups said. 

“To the extent that Western brands have pulled out unquestionably this has given carte blanche to factories to drive down labor conditions and increase violations of Burmese labor law and trade union rights,” said Dave Welsh, Myanmar country director of labor rights group Solidarity Center. 

“In a climate where the rule of law and industrial relations are absent, there is leverage in having Western brands that are vulnerable to pressure, present,” Welsh said. 

To stay or to go

Despite these challenges, workers are still concerned about the absence of the major manufacturers, who they say are more invested in finding a resolution than smaller local firms, where breaches of contract are rife.

“I understand, it’s a controversial issue, the brands staying in the country or leaving from Myanmar,” said Thurein Aung, a labor activist in Myanmar. “My concern is that when the multinational brands leave Myanmar, it is almost impossible to protect worker rights.”

Multinational brands that have chosen to stay in the country after the coup have similarly collected a laundry list of complaints from workers.

German sportswear company Adidas was cited in relation to four supplier factory violations in 2023, while other factories producing for European brands have been documented as repeat offenders. A factory for Denmark’s Bestseller was accused of eight different violations, including forcing pregnant women to resign and bribery between factory staff and labor officials. In spite of that, the factory will continue to supply Bestseller in 2024. 

Bestseller did not respond to RFA’s enquiries by the time of publication. 

Violations continue to rise

In the past, collecting and publishing evidence of abuses could result in positive action from brands and factories, even if it was only temporarily. But in 2023, many factories stopped responding to complaints at all, said Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar president Khaing Zar Aung.

“The factories come to understand the brand will not leave the country because they are making a profit. So the factories now do not care about their violations in the media,” she said. “So we cannot have many changes and improvements in the factories after posting [about these issues].”

And while 2023’s numbers concern labor advocacy groups, reports in the first three months of 2024 look set to be on track to surpass them.

As of March, the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar had received 114 complaints of labor and human rights abuses involving 169 brands, the vast majority stemming from the country’s garment sector.

“Violations are the same, the verbal abuse, illegal dismissal, not paying overtime or not paying minimum wage, forced labor, sexual assault, giving pressure and intimidating and the violation of the employment contract,” Khaing Zar Aung said. “The data shows us that the situation is worse and worse, day by day.”

Edited by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.

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