By Michael Elms
In February 2021, the military in Myanmar carried out a coup and abolished the elected government.
Since then, millions of people have taken to the streets to demand an end to dictatorship and democracy for Myanmar. This street movement, calling itself the Civil Disobedience Movement, has been led by trade unions and workers’ organisations.
Many workers in Myanmar’s garment factories, especially Yangon, have been out on strike. The army and police has met these protests with violence and live bullets. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners said that as of 17 May, 802 people had been killed by the military for participating in the movement, 4,120 detained and 20 sentenced to death.
Many UK clothing brands use garment factories in Myanmar. In April, trade union leader Khaing Zar Aung described the situation for workers in garment factories:
“Many workers are afraid to go back to work, because of the total lack of security in the industrial zones. Thousands of workers have returned to their home villages during the violent crackdown taken place in Hlaing Thar Yar on 14-15 March, when military killed over 100 people in that industrial area. Many trade union leaders had to go into hiding, because military started searching for them at factory level and at their homes. For many of them it is now difficult to return to work, due to lack of transportation and due to the many military checkpoints on the roads, where people are checked and arbitrarily detained or shot.
“In Hlaing Thar Yar, the military is arbitrarily stopping workers on the streets demanding that they handle their phones to soldiers or under threat of arrest they obliging workers, if they do not have phones, to pay 20,000 MMK. During the 14-15 March crackdown, around 37 Chinese owned factories were burned or damaged. Two more garment factories in Hlaing Thar Yar were burned on April 7, leaving 16 people dead at the hands of the military.
“Also due to these events, many workers are afraid to go back to work, fearing that their factories may also get burned in the future. The military regime cut phone lines and mobile internet, so it is nearly impossible for workers to inform their employers, if they cannot return to work. Due to cut of communication, even union members cannot contact their union representatives and inform the employers.”
Trade unionists in Myanmar and around the world are demanding that global brands work with their suppliers to safeguard the jobs of workers who are unable to attend work due to the political situation. So far, some brands like H&M, Next, C&A, Primark and Benetton have suspended new orders. But they have not yet taken steps to ensure that wages and severance are being paid.