COVID AND EXPLOITATION; GARMENT INDUSTRY WORKERS ARE FIGHTING A DOUBLE-PANDEMIC

by Lotty Clare

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the worst parts of the global system of racial capitalism, and has put into stark focus the number one priority of corporations: wealth accumulation above all else. One of the most exploitative facets of this economic regime is the garment industry.

With governments poised to bail out massive corporations for their losses during this pandemic, who will bail out textile workers in the Global South, where so much of the labour that has generated enormous corporate profits has been outsourced to?

An abrupt halt in demand due to mass store closures has led to brands cancelling orders at short notice and in some cases refusing to pay for orders that suppliers are already manufacturing. CEO of New Look, Nigel Oddy, sent a letter to its suppliers stating that they would not be paying for any costs “in connection with any cancelled orders….this is a matter of survival for New Look.” For big brand executives, the pandemic is a concern purely in terms of profit loss, but for millions of garment workers, delay in payment of wages is quite literally  a matter of survival. 

Labour and human rights abuses in these supply chains occur mostly in the Global South, conveniently hidden from Western consumers. 

The global garment industry relies on a combination of low wages, rapid production lines, and precarious job security, with its buyer-driven supply chains designed in a way which allows corporations to avoid accountability at the production end. The costs of labour and production are outsourced, and brands then enforce extremely unrealistic production targets. As a result, suppliers are left with little alternative but to exploit their workers in order to operate. Labour and human rights abuses in these supply chains occur mostly in the Global South, conveniently hidden from Western consumers. 

The vast majority of the 50 million workers engaged in garment production in the Global South are women of colour. Many of these women are engaged in informal employment, have little or no savings, and are consequently living in a state of income poverty in countries which offer limited if any social security. Furthermore, most small factory suppliers lack the cash reserves or access to credit to pay workers and cushion financial shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In such a context, millions of workers and their families in the Global South face an imminent risk of losing their livelihoods.

In Burma, the pandemic is even being used as a cover to sack unionised garment factory workers. Employees at the Huabo Times factory – a supplier for brands including Zara and Primark – have been resisting ongoing exploitation and abuse of their labour rights carried out by the factory. Nwe Ni Linn, president of the workers’ union there, explained that only 3 days after submitting a union registration form, 107 workers were dismissed, most of whom were union members or leaders. This was done under the guise of COVID-19 physical distancing measures but a matter of days after this took place, 200 workers were then transferred from another factory to replace the workforce lost. 

employees often work 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week and earn around $3 a day,

This is not an isolated incident. In the Yangon-based Jin Sen factory, workers took part in a sit-down strike after the factory reportedly sent spies into union meetings; 13 union leaders were fired shortly after. Sit-down strikes have also been used in other factories to avoid COVID-19 laws that ban demonstration gatherings. In one of Primark’s Yangon supplier factories – Amber Stone factory – workers have been wearing red headbands to protest a similar case of union busting, in which union leaders had allegedly been intimidated and beaten up by company thugs. At the Rui-Ning factory, 298 union members were fired in early May, and Myan Mode factory recently fired 520 of its unionised workers.

These employees often work 10-12 hour days, 6 days a week and earn around $3 a day, however very little has been done in response to workers’ demands for better treatment.

In India too, similar stories are emerging. On the 9th of July more than 300 garment workers organised a demonstration in Erode district of Tamil Nadu to protest non-payment of wages and lack of health and safety measures in factories. In Bangladesh, labour activists have raised the alarm about pregnant textile workers being illegally fired, employees who asked for PPE losing their jobs, and union members being purged under the cover of pandemic response measures. 

Garment factory workers’ strike in Myanmar. Image credit: Food Not Bombs Myanmar Facebook page (Wai Yan Phyoe Moe)

The pandemic has not only revealed the exploitation of workers in the garment industry of the Global South, but closer to home too. In the UK, warehouse workers for ASOS have raised objections and campaigned with GMB trade union over a lack of social distancing and hygiene measures in the workplace. Headlines over the past week have also exposed the exploitation of workers in Boohoo supplier factories in Leicester. Wages of £2–3 an hour have been reported as being commonplace in Leicester factories that supply Boohoo, and employees have said that they were forced to continue work despite being unwell with the coronavirus.

Brands are pushing hundreds of thousands of working class, migrant, and Black and Brown workers into increasingly desperate situations. Yet this is taking place at the same time that these very same brands are releasing statements standing against racism; promising to ‘listen to learn’. But when will they actually listen to workers resisting exploitation in their own factories?

When working conditions are revealed, brands tend to spout empty words about their commitment to fairness and transparency. Sometimes brands will respond to criticism by cutting ties to the individual suppliers in an attempt to shed the blame. But this is not about a few bad factories treating their workers poorly, this is a systemic problem which needs a transformative systemic solution.

The pandemic is making it increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that struggles for labour rights are global struggles. Despite international campaigns, reforms have not done enough to improve working conditions and have done little to change fatally unequal power relations that exist in the garment industry.  Successful change will mean real international solidarity between workers movements in the Global South and Global North.


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MYANMAR SUBMITS FIRST ICJ REPORT AMIDST NEW ALLEGATIONS OF WAR CRIMES

by Lotty Clare

CW: article mentions ethnic cleansing, violence, genocide, torture.

“For decades, its tactics have intentionally maximized civilian suffering; we all know what they did to the Rohingya in 2017. They are now targeting all civilians in the conflict area, with people from Rakhine, Rohingya, Mro, Daignet and Chin communities being killed in recent months. Their alleged crimes must be investigated in accordance with international standards, with perpetrators being held accountable” 

These scathing remarks about the Myanmar military are part of Yanghee Lee’s last statement of her tenure in the role as UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.

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YANGON PRIDE KICKS OFF WITH NEW #LOVEISNOTACRIME CAMPAIGN

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by Lotty Clare

Content warning: sexual violence, corrective rape, sexual abuse, suicide.

Last Friday was the beginning of Yangon Pride celebrations in a country where human rights abuses are rife, and homosexuality is criminalised. The rising profile of LGBTQ+ rights in Myanmar provides precious hope for queer people in the country. However, the road to equality is a long one.  

Yangon’s 2020 Pride festival is organised by &PROUD and runs from January 18th to February 2nd. The opening day in Thakin Mya park attracted thousands of people. The city’s pride events include a boat parade, queer dance performances, drag shows, queer film screenings and panel discussions, and of course lots of rainbows. The films that will be shown include ‘A Simple Love Story’ a short documentary film that was given a distinction in the Wathann Film Festival but was not screened due to censorship, even though there was no nudity. The film centred around a trans couple and asked the question ‘does love have any gender?’. Continue Reading

CHINA STRENGTHENS TIES WITH MYANMAR AS HUMAN RIGHTS FALL BY THE WAYSIDE

by Yali Banton-Heath

Chinese head of state Xi Jinping made his first official visit to Myanmar (Burma) on Friday, where he met with State Councillor and de facto leader of the country Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Win Myint, and the Burmese military’s infamous commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Although it was Jinping’s first visit since assuming office, the occasion marked 70 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries and signifies a continued mutual desire to unite their economic and strategic interests. A total of 33 agreements were signed to speed up China-backed development projects in Myanmar and bolster the China-Myanmar-Economic-Corridor; a vital component of the wider Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Both countries have track records of serious state-sponsored human rights abuses, and share an increasing disdain for, and distancing from the West. With the tantalising promise of economic prosperity, has China got Myanmar under its thumb, and will development come at the expense of human rights.Continue Reading

AUNG SAN SUU KYI IS DEFENDING ROHINGYA GENOCIDE; BUT WHY?

by Lotty Clare

Last month The Gambia, with the support of the Organisation for Islamic Co-operation (OIC), filed a lawsuit in the International Court of Justice against Myanmar, accusing the state of breaching the Genocide Convention due to the systematic violence carried out against Rohingya. Public hearings will take place on 10-12 of December in the Hague and will be attended by a team headed by State Councillor and de facto head of state Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

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MYANMAR’S DISPLACED REMAIN RELUCTANT TO RETURN HOME, AND I DON’T BLAME THEM

by Yali Banton-Heath

New discussions have been taking place about the future of the displaced Rohingya population in Bangladesh, and their potential repatriation journey back over the border to Myanmar. The progression of the repatriation process however, as the UN has reiterated, remains frustratingly slow. A lack of guarantees, respect, and honesty on the Burmese government’s part is maintaining a firm unwillingness among Rohingya community leaders to make the decision to return home. But the Rohingya are not the only displaced minority demanding security guarantees and respect for their rights from the Burmese government. Elsewhere in the country, as well as across the Thai and Chinese borders other displaced ethnic groups – such as Kachin and Karen – are being faced with the same dilemma. Either to remain in squalid refugee camps, or make the journey home and risk returning to renewed violence and repression. 

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SMALLHOLDER FARMERS PERSECUTED IN MYANMAR

by Lotty Clare

Millions of farmers in Myanmar are fearing eviction and incarceration after a recent amendment in national land law. In September 2018 the government of Myanmar announced that anyone cultivating on land that the government deems ‘wasteland,’ who does not have a Land Use Certificate by March 2019, would be at risk of eviction, fines, or imprisonment. Now three months into this amendment in effect, the consequences have already been devastating for smallholder farmers.

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GENOCIDE AND INTERNATIONAL INTERVENTION: TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

by Yali Banton-Heath

The Rohingya crisis has saturated global media over the past two years, but since it was placed under the spotlight in 2016 I can’t help but think the international response it has initiated has been too little, and too late. All over the world we see grave injustices occurring and human rights abuses on mass scales. It only seems as though an international response is warranted, however, when these injustices reach some sort of pinnacle; often manifesting as the deaths of many thousands. We should be able to see the warning signs by now, and 2019 should be a year of working towards prevention, rather than mastering the art of tidying up the mess.

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CRITICISMS OF USAID’S LEGAL AID TOOLKIT IN MYANMAR

by Yali Banton Heath

Myanmar is a country under the spotlight at the moment. Human rights abuses, allegations of ethnic cleansing, economic development and foreign investment, and piss poor freedom of speech are among many controversial issues which cast shadows in today’s political discussions. On the ground, such issues require adequate legal aid, but Myanmar’s judicial system has been in tatters for decades.Continue Reading

WHY POPE FRANCIS DID NOT USE THE TERM “ROHINGYA” ON HIS VISIT TO MYANMAR

by Josephine Moysey

From November 27th to 30th, 2017, Pope Francis visited Myanmar, the country I’ve called home for the last three years. There was much speculation before he arrived: would he say the word “Rohingya” or not? It’s not as simple decision as it might initially seem. Within Myanmar, the term “Rohingya” is perceived as somewhat inflammatory; the Rohingya themselves are seen as being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many refer to them as “Bengali”. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi refers to them as “the Muslim community in Rakhine State”. A common opinion heard and shared among people within the Burmese Buddhist community is one of condemnation of the Pontiff, though this is not the official line. They have accused him of only supporting Muslims and not understanding or respecting the Buddhist community here. They say that even his very presence at this time shows that he is a Muslim sympathiser.

On the other hand, human rights groups urged the Pope to use the term “Rohingya”. They claimed the Pope needed to validate this identity and use the term as a show of support. Ultimately, Pope Francis did not use the term “Rohingya” whilst he was here. What was his reasoning for this?Continue Reading

BUSINESS, AS USUAL: THE ROHINGYA CRISIS, REPATRIATION AND ECONOMIC INTERESTS

by Yali Banton Heath

Content warning: ethnic cleaning, sexual violence.

Myanmar and Bangladesh have just signed an agreement which concerns the repatriation of over 600,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled their homeland in Rakhine state since August. What many are now rightfully calling out as genocide, the persecution, murder and rape of Rohingya people and the burning of their villages has left deep scars. Continue Reading

BAD BUDDHISM OR BAD PEOPLE?

By Gunnar Eigener

Content warning: genocide, ethnic cleansing, sexual assault.

Buddhism is often perceived as a religion and philosophy of peace, its proponents kind and gentle souls, epitomised by the charismatic and jovial Dalai Lama. Yet in recent years, stories have broken out regarding the behaviour of Buddhists. A minority within tarnishing the majority it might remain, but the actions of the Myanmar military and the feelings of the population against the Rohingya have cast a shadow across Buddhism.Continue Reading

A WORLD IN CRISIS

by Gunnar Eigener

Everywhere we turn to some sort of crisis or damage control is taking place. North Korea’s recent testing of a hydrogen bomb, the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Hurricane Harvey devastating parts of Texas, the cholera epidemic and famine in Yemen, the failure of Brexit negotiations, US President Trump’s ever divisive actions, the list goes on. Our global problems are racking up and cracks are starting to appear.

Many of these problems have been long coming, but are now gathering lethal momentum. The world seems to be constantly on edge, waiting with baited breath for the next catastrophe or attack, humanitarian or economical, to happen. New problems are being created or the foundations of future conflicts being laid. What is probably most frustrating is that many are avoidable.Continue Reading

ASEAN NATIONS CONTINUE TO BE SILENT ON THE ROHINGYA CRISIS

by Faizal Nor Izham

The recent Rohingya crisis in South East Asia is nothing new — clashes between the ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar, have been ongoing since 2012 through a series of riots. By October of that year, Muslims of all ethnicities had begun to be targeted.

The riots were supposedly triggered by widespread fears among Buddhist Rakhines that they would soon become a minority in their own ancestral state. Riots sparked after weeks of sectarian disputes, which included a gang-rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by Rohingyas and the killing of ten Burmese Muslims by Rakhines.

It is the refusal from fellow South East Asian nations to
take in tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees which
has been the main source of recent controversy.

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