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COVID-19 and International Unionbusting

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I’m glad someone in the media is paying attention to the impact of COVID-19 and the decline of the global economy on the tenuous status of unionized garment workers in south and southeast Asia. Elizabeth Paton at the Times on the fears that this will become a big ol’ excuse for some unionbusting.

Myan Mode, a garment factory on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, produces men’s jackets, women’s blazers and coats for Western fashion companies like Mango and Zara. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, it has seen a decrease in orders from international retailers.

That was why it let go almost half of its 1,274 workers in late March, the factory’s managing director said in response to protesters who arrived at the factory’s doors to denounce the dismissals.

Three fired sewing operators, however, said the factory was taking an opportunity to punish workers engaged in union activity. In an interview, the operators — Maung Moe, Ye Yint and Ohnmar Myint — said that of the 571 who had been dismissed, 520 had belonged to the factory’s union, one of 20 that make up the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar. About 700 workers who did not belong to the union kept their jobs, they said.

Myan Mode’s South Korean-based owner did not respond to requests for comment, and did not provide details about the firings.

Mr. Maung Moe, 27, was the factory union’s president and had organized several strikes. Mr. Ye Yint, 30, was the union’s secretary, while Ms. Ohnmar Myint, 34, had been a union member since its founding in June 2018.

“The bosses used Covid as an opportunity to get rid of us because they hated our union,” Mr. Maung Moe said. He said he and other union members had been in discussions with the factory managers before the firings, demanding personal protective equipment and that workers be farther apart on the factory floor. “They thought we caused them constant headaches by fighting for our rights and those of our fellow workers.”

Of course, we could fight for international labor standards that hold the clothing companies accountable for actions in their supply chains, which is the only way this gets fixed. As I’ve said many times before, the legal and legislative hurdles for this are far less impossible than they might seem. And this kind of action is critical for creating a globally just workplace where workers aren’t being fired for standing up for themselves or dying to make your meat or clothing. International labor standards with real teeth should be part and parcel of the progressive agenda, though it is not yet.

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