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The Workers Movement in Myanmar

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YANGON, MYANMAR – FEBRUARY 13: Protesters hold placards and shout slogans near the City Hall on February 13, 2021 in Yangon, Myanmar. Myanmar declared martial law in parts of the country, including its two largest cities, as protests continued to draw people to the streets after the country’s military junta staged a coup against the elected National League For Democracy (NLD) government and detained de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The U.S. government imposed sanctions and froze the U.S. assets of several of the coup’s leaders and their families. (Photo by Hkun Lat/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most depressing global news over the last month has been the military coup in Myanmar. Now, the global love fest for Aung San Suu Kyi ended when liberals could stop idealizing her as Gandhi reborn and instead realized that she was totally cool with genocide of the Rohingya if it helped her political ambitions. But nonetheless, military coups are very, very bad things.

What’s been interesting is that the revolt against the coup has not come from the middle classes, but from the workers themselves. There’s been quite a few stories about this, though fewer lately. Information is hard to come by. A couple of points here though. First, a background article from a couple of weeks ago.

Myanmar’s coup leaders have called on hundreds of thousands of government employees — doctors, garbage collectors, electricity workers — to set their “emotion” aside, abandon their protests against the military and return to work.

But on Monday, even after the army had put armored vehicles in the street in a nighttime show of power, the workers displayed little interest in returning to their jobs.

The work stoppages, which appear to be growing, are undermining the ruling generals as they try to assert their authority over the population after seizing power two weeks ago.

The walkouts have been especially notable among government employees, including at the ministry that provides power nationwide, tax offices and the General Administration Department, which oversees a wide range of public services and government functions.

The doctor also noted that his patients could come to see him at a private hospital at no cost.

Yangon residents have begun taking their household trash to neighborhood garbage bins themselves after home pickup was halted by the trash collectors’ walkout.

Consumers have also begun boycotting businesses owned by the military, including once-popular Myanmar Beer and a chain of gold and jewelry stores owned by a member of the military’s new ruling body, the State Administration Council.

At the Ministry of Electricity and Energy, the nation’s power provider, about 60 percent of employees have joined the movement and walked off their jobs, said U Pyae Sone Ko Ko, a lineman who has stopped working.

A large number of employees are meter readers, he noted, and if they don’t do their jobs, the ministry cannot send out bills.

Part of what needs to happen here is real international support for workers. The vile garment industry has seen Myanmar as the latest workers it can exploit. That does provide the opportunity though for global solidarity efforts, if global liberals care enough to bother even talking about it. The Myanmar garment workers are attempting to make this happen.

“This is the time for brands to help the workers of Myanmar, because workers and our country need democracy,” says Ma Moe Sandar Myint, chairwoman of the Federation of Garment Workers of Myanmar, who has been leading garment workers in the protests against the military coup that took place in the country on 1 February.

Myanmar’s military junta overtook the government on 1 February prompting a wave of pro-democracy protests led by workers across sectors, including the garment industry, which employs 900,000 people and accounts for nearly 30 per cent of all Myanmar exports, worth more than $5 billion. Foreign brands operating in the country often don’t employ the workers directly, but rely on second and third-tier suppliers, which is why they say ensuring workers’ rights can be challenging.

In a 14 February letter published on Facebook, the IWFM made four demands to international brands with Myanmar suppliers, including a public condemnation of the military coup and an effort to ensure that no worker or union leaders should be punished for going on strike or joining the demonstrations. Another letter, dated 18 February, asks brands to exercise due diligence with their suppliers in Myanmar to ensure that the right to freedom of association, the right to join trade union activities and basic human rights are respected. Organisers say their demands have remained unanswered.

The letters were not sent to brands directly, but garment workers have protested with placards calling out international brands including Inditex, Bestseller, Mango and H&M, while a list calling out 32 international brands was published on Twitter. Vogue Business reached out to all 32 brands for a comment on the specific demands made in the IWFM letter and whether the brands were planning to issue a public response to the IWFM letter and demands, which were shared with the brands in the same email.

Aldi Nord says it was not aware of the letter, but has asked suppliers to engage more closely with factory management on the right to freedom of association. Adidas said it is in close exchange with other brands, industry associations and civil society organisations about the current situation in Myanmar. Benetton said it didn’t receive the letter but is committed to fully respecting human rights and labour rights in its operations and supply chains, including the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of opinion and freedom of association under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. US bridal brand Justin Alexander said it unequivocally condemns the military coup in Myanmar. A Muji spokesperson said the brand never received the letter, as did Lindex, who added it is following the development closely and has a close dialogue with suppliers and factories to monitor the situation. JCPenney said it does not source any of its private brands from Myanmar, while Calvin Klein said parent-company PVH prohibits sourcing from Myanmar, which is included on the company restricted jurisdictions list.  Gap Inc. said it does not source any products from Myanmar.

Bestseller, H&M and KappAhl said they are signatories of the statement of concern from Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business. Tesco, Tchibo, Lidl, New Look, Inditex,  Primark and H&M pointed to an ACT on living wages public statement, which was also signed by IndustriAll, C&A, Esprit and Next. Next also said it is engaging with the Myanmar situation through the ETI (Ethical Trading Initiative). All other brands did not respond in time for publication.

These companies will do as little as possible unless we pressure them in some way. Ideally, there would be a Corporate Accountability Act that we should take up as the primary way in which these actions could take place, actively punishing companies who continue to outsource production in extremely exploitative ways and force them to take control over their supply chains. Meaningless signatories of statements are in fact meaningless. They serve as *wink wink* to the coup leaders and as a shunt against any actual complaining from western consumers.

It is however also important to listen to the workers themselves, who after all, do need jobs.

Worker unions have not yet called for international brands to cut ties with business associated with the military or the country, which could be devastating for the garment sector, but if and when those demands come, brands should listen to the workers, says Tillett-Saks. “This would result in workers losing jobs, but the workers have already shown incredible courage in terms of making sacrifices and enduring risk to fight for the future of democracy in Myanmar. They’re not OK with having low-wage jobs under a military dictatorship.”

The main thing I will say, again and again, is that none of this changes unless western consumers give one whit as to where and how their products are made. Again, a Corporate Accountability Act is the best way in which we can push a new regime of global labor reform with real teeth. The race to the top is not unprecedented and the American government has in the past taken steps (relatively minimal yes but still) to do so. This is not some crazy utopian world I am talking about here. It’s actually rather simple–moving from national to international labor rights regimes just as capitalism has moved from national to international mobility and industry.

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