“A million laborers are afraid of famine” Major unions call for total boycott as workers, business, and experts butt heads

“A million laborers are afraid of famine” Major unions call for total boycott as workers, business, and experts butt heads

As Burma’s economy flatlines, the country’s largest unions have demanded a total boycott of garment factory production, generating confusion amongst leading international exporters and leaving commentators fearing social catastrophe. All the while, some minor unions say they have been left out of the conversation.

As unions internally debate the merits of sanctions, none is more aware of the heavy consequences than the garment worker.  Nearly every Burmese garment worker can tell you that reduced daily wages, arbitrary dismissals, increasingly unreasonable demands from factory managers, and checkpoints enroute to work are the new facts of post-coup life.

All the while, the kyat is flirting with record lows of K2,700 to the dollar, with the price inflation of basic goods adding to the despair of those now making ends meet on an average of K3,600 (US$1.75) per day.

For those looking to switch jobs, the outlook is bleak; the junta’s full-frontal attack on Burma’s business environment has left employment options scarce as joblessness booms.

Despite the hardships encountered outside the factory, many workers maintain that being inside them is now also unbearable. 

“Workers in Myanmar have been downtrodden for many years. Even in the democratic-military era, worker’s rights were not implemented properly and were not protected,” said the Vice Chairman of the Federation of General Workers Myanmar (FGWM), Moe Sandar Myint. FGWM, which claims to be one of the country’s largest unions, aggregates the opinions of 10,000 workers from 20 factory unions. 

“Especially now, workers cannot hope to survive with their rights, they are no longer useful for them.”

Going further, representatives of the Myanmar Labor Alliance (MLA)—said to represent the entire workforce of the country—have called for a more overtly political action: asking all foreign businesses to leave in the hope of putting holes in the Tatmadaw’s pockets.

Citing deteriorating working conditions inside the factory, such as reduced daily wages, baseless dismissals, and increasing safety threats to employees, union leaders are now vocalizing that, seven months into the coup, they are prepared to sacrifice whatever is necessary to improve their position in the long run.

On the flip side, a doubling of petrol prices at the pump, a cataclysmic decline in internal economic activity, and the establishment of barriers to export are also putting existential pressure on Burma’s factory owners, critically threatening investments that had borne a significant amount of fruit over the past decade.

Critics of comprehensive sanctions also maintain that any economic fallout could be devastating for tens if not hundreds of thousands of factory workers, and that a boycott could see a permanent end to long-term relationships that factories have with international retailers, effectively killing off a large part of Burma’s domestic economy. 

There is little historical evidence, they further say, that ridding the country of foreign industrialists will go any way towards harming the military.

Importantly, a number of these critics have also told DVB that not all unions agree with the broad statements of those with a bigger platform than themselves.

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On August 27, the large Danish fashion retailer, Bestseller, announced that, following discussions with NGOs, trade unions, and other experts, it planned to put on hold all orders from Burmese factories until it had conducted a “full impact assessment”. At the time, the move was a source of hope for pro-sanction unions, coming soon after boycott calls from the MLA. 

Weeks later, mask-clad laborers surfaced in social media videos calling for H&M, Zara, Mango, and Adidas, amongst other prominent global brands, to follow in Bestseller’s footsteps. 

Despite this, in the weeks that followed, a “wait-and-see” strategy seems to have fallen over the industry as more and more companies claim that they are monitoring conditions.

“We are deeply concerned about the situation in Myanmar and are following all developments carefully,” Adidas’s media relations officer, Stefan Pursche, said of their six suppliers in Burma. “Our primary concern is the safety and wellbeing of the workers in our partner factories.”

Swedish retailer H&M are considered by many to be the canary in the coalmine for western manufacturers. If the group was to freeze purchases, its influence could be expected to extend to other large brands. 

With this in mind, FGWM is one of a number of unions who, in recent weeks, has confirmed to DVB that they had been informed that the Scandinavian giant had committed to continue purchases from its factories in Burma.

Despite this—and perhaps reflecting the ever-increasing visibility of the debate—H&M’s spokeswoman Ulrika Isaksson this week denied the company has made any concrete decisions.

“At this point we are refraining from taking any immediate action on our future order placement and long-term presence in Myanmar,” Isaksson said, stressing the need for all perspectives to be considered.

The persuasive power of the boycott movement certainly remains strong. As unions—with their claims to speak for the majority—drum up increasing support, other voices have found little room for dissent. 

“After many discussions and decisions, the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions, FGWM and all unions decided to call for sanctions for the long-term profit of Myanmar workers,” Moe Sandar Myint told DVB on behalf of the Myanmar Labour Alliance. “The majority of workers have decided to fight until the end by sacrificing themselves during this time to achieve a better country with free and fair workplaces for Myanmar workers.”

Following an announcement that it was to back the MLA’s decision, influential international pressure group IndustriALL took to Twitter to defend their decision against the widespread criticism that calls for comprehensive sanctions did not take into account the views of all stakeholders. In their defense, IndustriALL claimed to have relied on Burma’s labor unions to guide their stance. 

IndustriALL’s communications officer, Walton Pantland, declined further comment on their August 31 statement, citing a lack of significant dissenting opinions. 

“The Myanmar Labour Alliance, which represents all the unions in the country, supports comprehensive economic sanctions. We are not aware of any organised group of workers which opposes the sanctions call,” he said in an email. “We have certainly not seen any public statements to that effect. We know also that the unions are reaching out to other civil society organisations, student groups and so on, to build support for sanctions.”

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Despite the claim that support for comprehensive sanctions is all-encompassing, DVB has found little to suggest how MLA formulated its call, and have been unable to ascertain any details of conversations held between its unions on the matter; in discussions, the organization has proven reluctant to share a list of members that comprise the 16-union grouping.

Whilst certainly the minority, dissenting union opinions are not as scarce as one might think if one were to take the highly visible Twitter-storm at face value. 

Among those erring on the side of less comprehensive targeted sanctions—hitting factories that overtly benefit the military—is the Yaung Chi Oo Workers Association, an organization for migrant Burmese workers in Thailand. 

“I agree with the sanctions, but I am more in favor of targeted sanctions,” said a representative of the union. “This is because only targeted sanctions can effectively punish the real culprit.”

Going further, DVB has uncovered representatives of four unions who, in discussion, disagree entirely with blanket sanctions. All noted their hesitancy in voicing views contrary to more powerful unions.

One representative, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of creating contention in the labor movement, said that the number of dissenting workers is far greater than union groups have thus far made out. The source suggested that as many as fifteen unions, representing 20,000 workers, are currently against a total boycott. 

“A million laborers are afraid of famine for their families,” the union representative said. “These are the reasons that the smaller labor unions and their workers say they disagree with the sanction.”

The representative said that he has compiled a lengthy list of concerns from like-minded unions. Among the most prominent is the fear of mass unemployment that could drive workers to extremes.

“The sanctions would leave the unemployed with no choice but to join the military, which could further strengthen the military,” he said. “They are recruiting through job agencies.”

Moreover, when multinational brands—typically compelled by law to conduct audits and monitor labor conditions—leave, the representative fears that governments and industrialists unconcerned with human welfare will fill the gap.

Somewhat paradoxically, these are exactly the concerns upon which FGWM’s Moe Sandar Myint argues major unions are basing their calls for a boycott; the common argument aired being that, if conditions continue to deteriorate, factory employees will no longer be able to abide labor conditions catalysed by the coup.

“These full-scale sanctions would meet workers with many difficulties, but those are only for the short term,” she said. “I believe they will meet a better future. However, for now, all must do their duty and help each other.”

The anonymous union representative is wary in his response to this argument: “It’s unknown who’ll solve welfare problems for laborers who feel the effect of the sanctions,” he said. “Currently, nine out of ten workers are concerned about unemployment, but have the organizations that represent workers listened to their voices?”

To be sure, while some workers are willing to make a sacrifice in the hope of plugging another of the junta’s perceived sources of foreign revenue, the research currently suggests that the junta’s interest in Burma’s garment industry is just that, perceived. This fact leaves many questioning whether the highly tangible loss to workers would provide the military with a hit anywhere near as comparable.

“The SAC will be able to withstand the sanctions for years, however, the workers will only be able to withstand them for days. The risk is too much for us,” the anonymous union rep said. “The rate of compensation for a business shutdown is only one month’s salary for a person with two years of experience—but it’s not even enough to cover the transportation fees back to their hometown,” they added.

For those who have seen this type of hardline policy espoused before, the boycott calls are a case of deja vu. Vicky Bowman, the former UK Ambassador to Burma and current director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, said she believes that, far from disengaging, current conditions make it imperative that international brands actively impose a heightened due diligence to ensure workers’ rights are being protected and that suppliers within the country are operating in accordance with international labor laws. 

“An immediate exit from Myanmar would not be responsible. As history showed, a two-thirds contraction in the garment sector in the 1990s had no impact on the previous military regime, for whom the sector is not important,” said Bowman. 

“It had a significant negative impact on former workers who were driven into precarious work in the informal sector, and into the arms of traffickers. In the current situation, options to earn income are even more limited.”

The European Union’s Ambassador to Burma, Ranieri Sabatucci, says that, despite a lingering perception amongst critics that such claims are being voiced to protect foreign—in Sabatucci’s case, EU— commercial interests, these concerns are minimal. 

Sabatucci says that his real concern lies in protecting the 100,000 jobs that are created in the sector annually, jobs that would otherwise be lost if purchasing quotas were relocated.

“[Burma’s garment industry has achieved an] extremely successful outcome in terms of poverty alleviation and we don’t understand what would be the tangible benefits of making so many women lose their livelihood, especially given that the industry contribution to the revenue of the state is negligible,” he said in a statement.

“Given the significant investment the EU has made for the development of Myanmar in general in terms of poverty alleviation over the last six years, we are concerned that all this progress would be lost, thousands of good people will lose their means of survival for no benefit whatsoever.”

In the face of all this, the wildly popular Civil Disobedience Movement continues to grip Burma’s citizens with its increasing successes against the country’s coup makers. The debate on whether those in the garment industry should also put down tools is likely to continue with greater urgency—but the question remains: who really speaks for Burma’s garment workers?