Politics

Myanmar’s Garment Workers Are Caught Between COVID-19 and the Coup – The Diplomat


The financial fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2021 coup in Myanmar has unraveled the promising features the nation achieved since its opening in 2011. The World Bank’s replace from January initiatives 1 p.c development for Myanmar in 2022, noting that the nation’s economic system is 30 p.c smaller than it will have been within the absence of the coup and COVID-19 shocks. While impacts fluctuate throughout sectors, experiences in Myanmar’s garment trade present perception into how the COVID-19 pandemic and navy coup have reversed enhancements in employees’ livelihoods and safety. This pattern calls for consideration from U.S. and European stakeholders as they search to advance political and enterprise pursuits whereas championing accountable labor practices.

The garment sector functioned as a driving power for export-oriented development throughout Myanmar’s post-2011 political and financial transition. The worth of garment exports expanded fivefold from 2012 to 2019, accounting for 28 p.c of Myanmar’s complete export worth by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Myanmar gained preferential entry to European markets beneath the European Union’s Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, which facilitated its garment exports’ success. In addition to its significance for general financial development, the garment trade additionally served as Myanmar’s quickest rising supply of respectable employment. Its ascent highlights the essential livelihood and financial mobilization alternatives afforded by Myanmar’s interval of opening, significantly for the younger ladies constituting roughly 90 p.c of Myanmar’s garment employees, most of them rural-to-urban migrants.

The outbreak of COVID-19 first started to unthread the seams of Myanmar’s garment trade as lockdowns, provide chain disruptions, and order cancellations contributed to widespread layoffs and manufacturing unit closures. A manufacturing unit survey from the EU’s Center for Economic and Social Development means that Myanmar’s garment and footwear trade witnessed a 26 p.c discount in its workforce in 2020. Those who remained employed confronted revenue loss pushed by cuts to time beyond regulation hours. This in flip lowered remittances from inner migrants working within the trade, which serve as a lifeline for a lot of rural poor households. The EU’s Myun Ku program and the pre-coup Myanmar authorities’s COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan supplied a baseline degree of financial aid however fell wanting reaching all impacted employees.

Additional provide and demand shocks hit the garment trade on account of the coup on February 1, 2021. From February via May of 2021, main international manufacturers together with H&M and Primark suspended operations in Myanmar in gentle of the coup. Reductions in international demand together with money move shortages and transportation disruptions exacerbated manufacturing unit closures and layoffs. Consequently, the Federation of General Workers in Myanmar estimated that one in three garment factories had been set to shutter their doorways in 2021. Additionally, the worth of the kyat dropped precipitously following the coup, reaching a historic low in September 2021. This additional lowered the buying energy of garment employees, whose wages had already eroded from the influence of COVID-19.

The coup additionally launched political pressures that place garment employees in a tough place as they weigh political activism with financial and bodily safety issues. For many, the commute by motorcycle or on foot to factories positioned in industrial zones requires navigating battle zones or navy checkpoints in areas beneath martial legislation. Moreover, labor unions have emerged on the forefront of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), which inspires employees to forgo income-earning alternatives to take part basically strikes. These unions’ outspoken criticism of the junta has rendered garment employees targets of manufacturing unit raids and arrests by safety forces trying to quash anti-coup resistance.

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Garment employees bear the brunt of the fallout from the junta’s response to anti-coup labor activism. Following the emergence of the CDM, the junta outlawed 16 labor organizations and arrested outstanding union leaders. These actions have undercut unions’ skills to observe and advocate for bettering working situations. The hollowing out of collective labor energy compromises the extremely fragile features for employees’ rights that labor unions achieved previous to the coup.

Two years after the onset of COVID-19 and one yr after the coup, Myanmar’s garment employees now face an evolving dilemma. The World Bank highlights the garment trade as a sector on the mend from the influence of COVID-19. Notably, garment exports largely accounted for the gradual restoration of producing exports throughout the last three months of 2021. However, because the World Bank additionally underscores, post-coup political uncertainty continues to plague the trade. Balancing bolstering the trade’s COVID-19 restoration with ongoing efforts to take a stance towards the junta complicates the alternatives going through garment employees and people looking for to help them.

As the supply of lots of the world’s main vogue manufacturers and Myanmar’s largest garment export markets, the EU, the United States, and Japan play a essential position in shaping the course of the advanced street to restoration for Myanmar’s garment trade. In December 2021, the Action, Collaboration, Transformation (ACT) initiative – the first worldwide labor rights watchdog in Myanmar – halted its operations in Myanmar after its native commerce union affiliate decided it was “no longer able to operate freely under current circumstances.”

Following ACT’s withdrawal, a coalition of over 130 commerce organizations, together with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, marked the first-year anniversary of the coup by calling for worldwide vogue manufacturers to divest from Myanmar in solidarity with the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions and the Federation of General Workers Myanmar. In addition to inserting stress on particular person firms, activists have additionally lobbied the European Union, the United States, and different governments to broaden sanctions and for the European Union to withdraw the EBA preferential preparations that uphold Myanmar’s garment sector’s privileged entry to European markets.

While these calls for align with calls from most labor unions in Myanmar, a survey from December 2021 from the Workers’ Solidarity League of Burma – with over half of the respondents working in garment and shoe factories – discovered just about no help for labor unions’ campaigns for broader sanctions. These conflicting views between particular person employees and unions present perception into the complexity underlying garment employees’ approaches to their work and its political implications as they reply to a number of crises evolving at completely different charges. The European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar acknowledges this complexity, noting that it’s going to help vogue manufacturers that proceed to supply from Myanmar whereas guaranteeing to the extent potential respectable work alternatives and compliance with human rights requirements.

Understanding the challenges squeezing employees from all sides in industries such because the garment sector is important to crafting delicate responses to Myanmar’s crises. Prioritizing accountable labor practices in coverage responses will scale back hurt to the employees on the frontlines of those crises as European and U.S. stakeholders search to help Myanmar’s financial rebound from COVID-19 whereas taking a stand towards the junta.

This article was initially revealed on New Perspectives on Asia from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and is reprinted with permission.



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