Remake CEO Ayesha Barenblat and PayUp Fashion‘s Elizabeth L. Cline hosted an emergency conference recently in which a number of union leaders and garment workers spoke of the current situation in Myanmar. The discussion primarily addressed how the military coup is affecting garment workers in the region and how the brands they work for are — or rather, are not — helping their employees.
Peaceful protests have been taking place across Myanmar since the military seized control on February 1, deposing the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, but the crackdown on anti-coup demonstrators has been brutal. In the last two months, over 500 people have been killed, although the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) says that the real number could be much higher.
One such protest took place on March 14. That day, as Remake reports, 60 workers were killed “in Hlaingthaya, the main garment zone in Myanmar. This occurred when the military marched hundreds of tanks into Hlaingthaya, trapped workers inside, and massacred dozens and dozens of workers.” Ko Aung of Federation of General Workers in Myanmar (FGWM) stated that now “workers are very worried about their safety if they are on the road because the military is shooting everyone — safety is a big issue we face even to go to work.” (Quotes translated by Thomas, a labor researcher in Myanmar.)
Ko Aung also shared the following statement: “We sew for Mango, Zara, Primark. Mostly European brands. There has been a lot of union solidarity. Military has been shooting us with live ammunition. This has had a big impact on the factory zones, with many factories shutting down. Safety to get to work has been a big concern. We want international brands to push suppliers to stand with workers. Many workers have fled to rural areas. For workers who have fled to rural areas without pay there are concerns of hunger.”
Andrew Tillett-Saks of Solidarity Center added: “Many of the workers have fled the industrial zones because of the massacres that happened and they don’t feel safe there, and for that reason, the factories are mostly closed.” The closing of factories hugely impacted the main industrial zone in Hlaingthaya, which is outside Yangon and has over 300 garment factories. Those that have stayed open are apparently demanding that workers still go to work, even if it means risking their own safety.
Kha Kha of Let’s Help Each Other (LHEO) added that many garment factories in the region are Chinese-owned. “Chinese factories aren’t interested in the military coup. In fact, they’re not doing anything to help with the movement. For example, the military issued an 8 p.m. curfew but some factories required that workers work overtime. These factories sew items for Primark, H&M, and Zara.”
By not helping at all, these brands are making a terrible situation even worse for the garment workers — without financial support, they are essentially being asked to weigh up between two somber realities: potentially getting killed by the military on their daily commute, or fleeing and risking homelessness, starvation, and more.
“During Covid and the economic slowdown, fashion’s most essential workers have been dealing with the worst humanitarian crisis of our lifetime,” says Barenblat. “This includes reduction in wages and an increase in gender-based violence. With a rise of authoritarianism and dictatorships around the world, we are seeing a rollback on garment worker rights and the very safety of workers erode globally.”
The unions and garment workers are demanding that the brands they work for, such as those listed above, provide meaningful, financial support. So far, they have received nothing. Barenblat adds: “Brand response to the growing crisis in Myanmar has been at best boilerplate, at worst silence.”
Remake shared a list of demands from Union Leaders and Worker Rights representatives, which brands, governments, and citizens can reference when looking for ways to help in a meaningful way. Find the advice quoted verbatim below.
1. Brands must urge their suppliers to support workers’ rights to protest and participate in the civil disobedience movement against the military coup. This includes specifically ensuring that workers can take leave for as long as they need (for safety or protest reasons) without dismissal.
2. Brands must halt orders from factories that support the military regime.
3. Brands must ensure that worker wages and severance are paid through the crisis. Many workers who are yet to be paid have fled to rural areas and are in need of food.
Unions are demanding that foreign governments impose comprehensive economic sanctions to pressure the military and to support workers fighting for democracy.
Workers in Myanmar are currently owed back wages, with some factories having shut down. They need money to keep protesting. You can support the strike fund organized by the APALA, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. All of the funds are going directly to worker-led organizations in Myanmar.
Head over to Remake for more information.