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Economy & Labor

Violence spikes as Myanmar garment workers say factories are colluding with the junta

by Louise DonovanMaung Moe November 23, 2021

Co-published with VICE World News

When the Myanmar military trucks and police motorbikes pulled up one May afternoon outside the garment factory on the outskirts of Yangon where Than Zaw was employed, he could do only one thing: run.

Security forces moved through rows of sewing machines at Gasan Apparel, hunting down employees. Chaos ensued as they kicked down doors and burst into toilets, attempting to arrest people they suspected had taken part in anti-coup protests in previous months.

Half an hour earlier, Than Zaw, who asked to use a pseudonym citing safety concerns, said another employee described overhearing the factory’s manager on the phone to someone who he believed to be an official from the junta. With stories of his compatriots being arrested, tortured and killed in military custody since the Feb. 1 coup at the forefront of his mind, Than Zaw scaled a six-foot wall to get away. He hasn’t returned to the factory since.

“When I realised they were after me, I was in shock,” he said. “I did no crime. I would rather die running than get arrested in the military’s hands.”

In early November, security forces once again raided Gasan Apparel as workers continue to accuse the factory’s senior management of calling on the junta to do their dirty work. Ma Moe Sandar Myint, leader of the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM), one of the country’s largest garment worker unions, said various members informed her that management at Gasan Apparel and Rui-Ning, another factory in Yangon, have been “acting as informants” for the junta for months.

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“The unions at these factories are really strong,” she said. “[Even before the coup], management were pissed because we had fought against them.”

Months of labor rights violations, rising tensions and increasing violence culminated in the assassination of a human resources manager at Rui-Ning this month for his alleged cooperation with the military. As the country’s wider civil unrest makes its way to the factory floor, it appears some Western brands such as Mango and Zara have begun quietly responding to the deteriorating conditions and public pressure by cutting ties with selected suppliers. 

Now, Gasan Apparel, which was already associated with COVID-era rights violations under its previous branding Myan Mode, is set to close this month due to reduced orders from brands. Yet some in the labor movement are concerned this withdrawal will expose already vulnerable workers to heightened risk.

“It’s really easy for brands to cut and run,” said Manny Maung, a Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They couldn’t guarantee the labor rights in the factories they were ordering from, but what have they done to help workers? Are they able to vouch for workers at other factories in the country? This industry is still really opaque, even more so because of the military dictatorship.”

The past decade has seen the European Union, the U.S. and Canada gradually begin to remove sanctions and re-engage with Myanmar after decades of isolation, with fast-fashion brands such as H&M, Primark and Denmark’s Bestseller drawn to the country’s cheap labor. The cheapest pair of socks on Zara’s website cost the equivalent of almost four days work for seamstresses, who earn a minimum wage of 4,800 kyat, or $2.70 per day.

But the country’s burgeoning $5 billion garment industry has taken a double hit from the pandemic and the Feb. 1 coup, which brought back full military rule in the Southeast Asian country. In the first half of this year, 250,000 garment workers lost their jobs and working hours dropped by more than half.

In a sector where workers’ rights violations were already commonplace, COVID-related factory shutdowns, hundreds of thousands of layoffs and pay cuts brutally collided with soldiers arresting, shooting or killing union leaders and garment workers en masse in an attempt to quash the country’s brewing civil disobedience movement. 

As the workers’ rights movement collapsed in recent months, removing a layer of protection, managers who don’t want employees fighting labor violations or opposing the coup have been abusing their power to expel anyone considered troublemakers, say Myanmar-based unions and workers. 

When security forces arrived at Gasan Apparel again earlier this month, some six months after the May raid that saw Than Zaw flee, it was allegedly at the behest of the factory’s senior managers. There had been a weekslong workers’ strike against salary and benefit cuts at the factory, which until recent months supplied Spanish brand Mango, as well as South Korea’s Komont and Westwood. 

Junta soldiers and police were called on to break it, according to local media, unions and garment workers interviewed by The Fuller Project and VICE World News. No arrests were made, but soldiers took employees’ pictures, and many say they fear looming repercussions. 

Just four days later on Nov. 9, an HR manager at Rui-Ning factory, which supplied Bestseller until March and Zara owner Inditex until as recently as May, was shot dead. A civilian anti-junta resistance group known as Yangon Eagle took to Facebook to declare responsibility for the killing of the man named Kyaw Kyaw, accusing him of reporting on workers. 

“The informant Kyaw Kyaw AKA Kyaw Gyi, who is oppressing the laborers together with [the military’s State Administrative Council], is now sent to hell by our group,” they wrote. 

Kyaw Kyaw had a reputation for oppressing factory workers, according to a member of the Rui-Ning union, who asked to remain anonymous given the heightened tension. “He always threatened that he would call the military to arrest us,” they said. 

After months of deteriorating workplace rights under military threat, some workers say the latest spate of violence, which threatens to escalate further, is taking its toll. 

“We are not OK,” said Swe Mar, a Gasan Apparel employee who asked to use a pseudonym, citing fear of reprisal. “We are struggling for our lives.”

Half a dozen workers, as well as unions from both Gasan Apparel and Rui-Ning, say senior management has colluded with the military, providing security forces with the names of union leaders. Employees, unions and local media also say senior management at Gasan Apparel have personal ties with the military. 

While these claims are difficult to verify independently due to lack of documentation, stories like this are nothing new and permeate the wider industry.

“Workers at Gasan Apparel have been fighting factory management [since] well before the coup, and they’ve been telling me for years that management is connected to the military,” said Andrew Tillett-Saks, Myanmar country director for The Solidarity Centre, a U.S.-based international workers’ rights organization. 

“There’s many examples of employers and the military working hand in glove—it’s pretty widespread,” he added. 

Tension between management and workers has long been brewing in Myanmar’s garment sector. Before the coup, garment workers, roughly 90 percent of whom are women, rose up regularly inside factories to protest poverty wages and abysmal conditions. 

Since February, stitchers and seamstresses have rolled up their sleeves and drawn slogans denouncing the military government. They’ve been on the front lines of demonstrations, launching general strikes and building on their tight networks to organize mass protests and fight for democracy.

“A lot of women have joined unions and are learning about their labor rights. And it’s a threat to the system,” said Maung of Human Rights Watch. “Women were the ones to lead the protests because they don’t want things to regress and go back to a very patriarchal society under military rule. Things have changed a lot in the last 10 years.”

But the military continues to make life harder for young women navigating an already troubled sector. In March, a month after the coup, the regime declared martial law across Yangon, the country’s largest city and a hub for the garment industry. Ever since, women travelling to work must cross military checkpoints. Some are extorted for bribes or are verbally and sexually harassed, according to Maung. 

The military also took to public television to declare most of the country’s labor organizations illegal. This effectively disbanded unions inside garment factories, weakening their ability to monitor or advocate for labor rights, said Maung. The military arrested prominent trade union leaders for taking part in pro-democracy strikes and protests, and they’re keeping track of workers they want to investigate, she added. 

When security forces amassed outside the Rui-Ning factory one April afternoon, Yar Mhuu Lay, a former employee there, said he escaped out the back of the building. Earlier in the day, he says he saw the now-deceased HR manager Kyaw Kyaw talking to the military outside, and he later overheard Kyaw Kyaw talking about him on the phone with someone Yar Mhuu Lay believed to be in the military. 

“The entrance was opened to let them in. When I saw them, I ran with my friends,” said Yar Mhuu Lay, who asked to use a pseudonym to avoid jeopardizing his safety. “I knew the reason for their arrival: They were there for us.”

Over the following weeks, Rui-Ning employees told Yar Mhuu Lay security forces were still looking for him. At Gasan Apparel, Than Zaw said colleagues still employed also told him police were stationed outside the factory in the mornings aiming to catch him if he returned.

It’s these post-coup conditions that Maung says have made Myanmar’s already vulnerable garment workers especially susceptible to abuses. 

“They go to the factories and have to shut the hell up if they want to keep their jobs,” Maung said. “I just don’t understand how brands can think that is a reasonable climate to be operating in, particularly the ones from liberal Western democracies like Sweden and the UK. What are they doing there?”

Fashion brands are still operating in more than 500 factories in Myanmar, according to the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association’s October 2021 newsletter. But in light of escalating rights abuses across the industry, not least at factories like Gasan Apparel and Rui-Ning, some have begun pulling out. 

Zara’s parent company Inditex cut ties with Gasan Apparel in May and blocked Rui-Ning from its supply chain in early spring, meaning no orders can be placed with the factory, according to an individual familiar with the company’s sourcing in the region. 

In an emailed statement, Inditex said the wellbeing of workers throughout their supply chain “remains our priority” and supports the call by the IndustriALL global union for companies, including fashion brands, to cease operations in Myanmar.

Mango also confirmed it pulled production from Gasan Apparel in September but continues to operate in more factories across the country. The company said in an email that it is “deeply worried” about the situation in Myanmar but is “following what is happening” on the ground through its local in-country teams and relationship with the CCOO, one of Spain’s largest unions, and “hopes” a solution can be found soon.

Neither Komont nor Westwood replied to multiple requests for comment. While Bestseller stopped placing new orders across its suppliers in August, H&M and Primark said in statements they are continuing to work with local stakeholders to address any issues that arise. 

The net impact of this partial retreat among brands, as well as that of a wider boycott of the Myanmar economy, is an issue that sharply divides opinion.

Many workers and unions are calling for comprehensive sanctions in hopes of economically starving the regime. In July, the Myanmar Labor Alliance—a 16-member group which states that it represents the country’s entire workforce—said they want all foreign businesses to leave.

“I do not see any positive benefit of investment in Myanmar for workers,” said FGWM’s Ma Moe Sandar Myint, a member of the alliance. “This is a moment for us to stand together. If we don’t stand together with the Burmese people, they will be crushed.”

Critics of comprehensive sanctions or withdrawal by foreign businesses argue it could lead to mass unemployment in an economy already dealing with heavy job losses. At least four labor unions don’t agree with blanket sanctions, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma, one of Myanmar’s largest independent media organizations.

“Garment workers harbour a lot of hatred and resentment toward the regime because the attacks and arrests happened right under their noses,” said Htwe Htwe Thein, an associate professor of international business at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. “But then you think, if you don’t do this garment job, what would you do?”

For Swe Mar, a Gasan Apparel employee, her priority is surviving day to day on an ever-diminishing salary. 

“The most important thing is to eat, which is very difficult right now,” she said.

Whichever side of the debate foreign businesses fall on, the garment industry’s prospects as a whole look bleak. Some retailers are already quietly withdrawing, orders are dropping and factories are closing—all while violence threatens to escalate further. 

In a phone interview, management at Gasan Apparel denied allegations of collusion with security forces. “We didn’t call the police or the military,” said one manager who asked not to use their name over security concerns. “They came by themselves and we just talked in the office. The workers felt insecure and ran away. This is a misunderstanding.”

Whether true or not, the factory no longer has the orders to sustain itself and is now in the process of shutting down. Management claimed that workers will be given severance pay on Dec. 6. Rui-Ning management did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Some, meanwhile, fear the killing of Kyaw Kyaw at Rui-Ning this month could spark repercussions for garment workers. 

“This incident isn’t good,” said a Myanmar labor researcher for a major Western workers’ rights organization, who requested anonymity due to the issue’s sensitivity. She is concerned the junta will think workers requested the killing themselves. 

“The military are already hunting down union leaders… now they will oppress more than ever.”

Others, like Than Zaw, are exiled from their factories and no longer involved with the labor movement. He leaves behind a worn-out workforce facing a brutal battle inside Myanmar’s garment factories. 

“I’m sorry I had to run,” he said. “But I am worried. Once the unions are gone, workers will be oppressed too much.”

Additional reporting by Maung Moe, a contributing reporter for The Fuller Project.

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