News - 2022

Femal textil worker in Myanmar, working with an sewing maschine

© Somo | Martje Theuws

Overtime, Surveillance and Violence - On the Current Situation in Myanmar

With the executions of four activists at the end of July, the violence of the military regime in Myanmar has reached a new, sad climax. De facto head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, was sentenced to six more years in prison. Meanwhile, the situation of Myanmar's textile workers is becoming increasingly threatening. Raids and arrests at factories are on the rise. At the same time, labor rights are being curtailed, wages cut and unrealistic production targets set.

Current situation of the textile workers

The pressure on the workers is increasing. Even before the coup on Feb. 1, 2021, most garment workers earned merely the minimum wage, around US$ 2.5 a day (as of July 2022). In addition, they are instructed to work more overtime, sometimes six days a week in 12-hour shifts, or their salaries are cut. Furthermore, the factory managements set much higher production targets, which the sewers are not able to cope with. Break times are restricted and some workers are even denied access to the toilet. In addition, surveillance in the factories is increasing. Workers report unannounced crackdowns to arrest activists and trade unionists. At the same time, workers are not allowed to communicate with each other at the workplace, to make union work more difficult and to suppress meetings.

According to various reports including those by Myanmar Now and the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, these raids are based on information about employees gathered by the factory management and passed on to the military. Khaing Zar Aung, president of the Industrial Workers' Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) and board member of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), confirms this: "Factories provide the military and police with lists of union members, phone numbers and addresses, and photos of union leaders."Furthermore, activists and trade unionists are deliberately intimidated and threatened. "They put soldiers at the gates to check workers' cell phones and arrest those who are against the military," said Khaing Zar Aung. Those affected face prison sentences, torture and assassination.

Execution of four activists

In late July 2022, for the first time since 1990, four activists who have been fighting for democracy in the country for decades were executed. One of them was among the leaders of the 1988 student protests. The four dissidents were convicted of alleged "brutal and inhumane acts of terrorism." The surprisingly prompt executions of the sentences, which were announced only in June, is an attempt by the military junta to intimidate the people of Myanmar and demonstrate its power.

In addition, the military regime is trying to eliminate the country's opposition. In mid-August, the de facto head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, was sentenced to an additional six years in prison for corruption after already being transferred to solitary confinement.

Article 505a of the Criminal Code 

The military amended an article of the Criminal Code after coming to power in February 2021. Originally, Article 505 criminalized incitement of the people, sedition, and incitement to mutiny. The illegitimate military government expanded the law to include Section 505a, which penalizes causing fear, spreading false news, and causing crime against a public servant, as well as making statements critical of the military, with up to three years in prison. The government has since used the law to arbitrarily arrest and convict activists and trade unionists.

The role of trade unions

Most textile factories are located in Yangon, the industrial center of Myanmar in the south of the country. The district has been under martial law since the military seized power in Feburary 2021, making it very difficult for unions to operate because the right of assembly is suspended.

Trade unions in Myanmar were effectively banned for nearly 50 years under the first military dictatorship. After the 1988 People' s Uprisings, the military dissolved all works councils that worked to improve and uphold labor rights. Nevertheless, some unions remained active, though in a limited way, from abroad. It was not until a new reform process under Thein Sein's government and the resulting opening and democratization of the country that the formation of trade unions was legalized in 2011. "All these achievements were destroyed after the military coup on Feb. 1, 2021," says Khaing Zar Aung.

Protests since the military coup 2021

Five days after the coup, on Feb. 6, 2021, predominantly female workers went on strike in downtown Yangon out of concern for their labor rights and freedom of association. Most of the demonstrating workers were organized in trade unions, including many textile workers. Their protests triggered a general strike and motivated people across the country to take to the streets. Since then, the military regime has tried with all its might to suppress protests and union activity, as shown by the increase in raids and surveillance in factories.

Despite the heavy repression, threats, arrests and killings, workers continue to take to the streets and demonstrate for their rights. In late July, some 2,000 textile workers rallied in Yangon, saying that violations of their basic rights had become intolerable.

Increasing poverty

Since the military takeover, about 1.6 million workers have lost their jobs due to factory and workplace closures, according to an ILO estimate. Even before last year's military coup, many people, especially families, faced an existential crisis due to the Corona pandemic. According to an article by Save the Children, families in Myanmar have lost more than half of their income on average since the start of the Corona pandemic and now enhanced by the escalation of violence. Some 80% of families reported that food was their main concern, with adults in one in five households cutting back on meals to feed their children. According to the World Bank, poverty in the country has doubled since 2020.

The role of international companies

The garment industry is a major sector of Myanmar's economy and thus a source of foreign exchange for the military regime. International brands can put pressure on the regime by phasing out their production in Myanmar in a socially compatible way and paying compensation to workers. FEMNET calls for a re-examination of whether the duty-free access to the EU market granted by the EU trade agreement EBA (Everything But Arms) is justified for a military regime with severe human rights violations like the one in Myanmar. Companies should stop placing orders in Myanmar.

Our solidarity work

When the military took power in February 2021, FEMNET established an emergency fund for textile workers. So far, the fund has directly supported 625 women and men. We continue to call for solidarity with the workers who have to fear for their freedom and lives every day.

Further information

Ethical Trading Initiative, Due Dilligence Design,  Sept. 2022: Myanmar enhanced due diligence sectoral assessment (pdf-file)


The information in this text is based on various media reports from Myanmar Now, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, IndustrieALL Global Union, Save the Children, Spiegel, The World Bank, Asian Labour Review, ILO, Tagesschau, ITCU Global Rights Index as well as social media contributions from Myanmar Labour Alliance and individual activists, whom we do not name for security reasons. Information cannot be independently verified due to the current crisis situation in Myanmar.

2022 ITUC Global Rights Index [last reviewed on 31.08.2022]

Myanmar Now:
Garment factory workers strike in Yangon  [07.08.2022]
Garment factory workers say repression increased following recent labour strike [14.07.2022]

Buisness & Human Rights Resource Centre:
Resistence, harassment and intimidation   [July 2022]
Myanmar garment worker allegations tracker  [last reviewed on 31.8.2022]

IndustrieALL Global Union
EU must end preferential trade arragement with Myanmar military   [13.07.2022]

Just Style
Myanmar EBA arrangement removal would git 100.000s of garment workers  [19.07.2022]

The World Bank
Myanmar Economic Monitor July 2022: Reforms Reversed  [21.07.2022]

Save the Children
Families in Myanmar lose more than half their Income in Year of Conflict, says Save the Children  [28.07.2022]

Militärjunta in Myanmar richtet Dissidenten hin  [25.07.2022]
Myanmar Labour Alliance  [last reviewed on 31.8.22]

Asian Labour Review
In Post-Coup Myanmar, Workers Assert Workplace Democracy amid Suspension of Electoral Rule  [18.07.2022]

International Labour Organisation
ILO in Myanmar  [last reviewed on 31.8.22]

Militärjunta richtet vier Dissidenten hin   [25.07.2022]
Aung San Suu Kyi in Einzelhaft verlegt  [23.06.2022]