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Myanmar: trade unionists in the firing line

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

Martial law, amendments to the penal code and anti-terrorism laws allow trade unionists to be tried as if traitors. Many have been convicted under the regime. On March 2nd 2021, the SAC declared 16 labour organisations illegal and unions’ offices were raided and forcibly closed. Workers in Myanmar can no longer be represented by the free and democratic trade unions they have chosen to defend their rights and interests. Employers take advantage of the prevailing political situation to maintain poverty wages and deny workers’ rights. Even companies which might wish to, cannot exercise due diligence to respect fundamental workers’ and human rights openly abrogated by the military. The EU should suspend trade preferences for Myanmar and end support for projects under the military regime.


Guest blog by Khaing Zar Aung


On the morning of the 11 April 2023, an airstrike by the Myanmar military targeted a celebration in Pazigyi village, in Sagaing region’s Kanbalu township. At least 165 people were killed, including 27 women and 19 children, and 30 others were injured. Since the coup, Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has recorded 1,958 civilian casualties (786 killed and 1,172 injured) across 988 incidents. Among the civilians harmed, at least 297 were reported as children, 231 as women, and 237 as men.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs


This year the junta in Myanmar increased military spending by 50 per cent, to finance its war against its own people. The State Administration Council (SAC) declared martial law in 44 townships, while 132 (out of 330) are deemed ‘unpacified’ or out of control. Among them are six main industrial zones in Yangon, home to industrial workers who are already among some of the most impoverished in Myanmar.


In areas under martial law, regional commanders can set up military tribunals to hear cases involving 23 offences—including high treason, sedition, incitement, unlawful association, terrorism, murder and rape—with sentences extending to indefinite detention and the death penalty. The military surrounds these areas with checkpoints, checking the contents of phones and extorting workers. A worker can be given an unlimited sentence for nothing—and there is no appeal.


Tried as if traitors

Martial law, amendments to the penal code and anti-terrorism laws allow trade unionists to be tried as if traitors. Many have been convicted under the regime.


After the coup in February 2021, the military issued warrants for 27 members of the executive committee of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), the leaders of the Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) and other union organisations. More than 300 union and workers’ activists were arrested and sentenced and 55 union leaders hunted down and killed.

On March 2nd 2021, the SAC declared 16 labour organisations illegal and unions’ offices were raided and forcibly closed. Workers in Myanmar can no longer be represented by the free and democratic trade unions they have chosen to defend their rights and interests.


Violations of workers’ rights are rampant, as evidenced by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre’s tracker of allegations by garment workers, which monitors and publishes reports on abuses in the sector. The Ethical Trading Initiative has confirmed that its basic standards are not being met in the garment industry—and that lack of respect for freedom of association and compliance with prohibition of forced labour are the most severe risks.


It is nearly impossible for individuals to act on behalf of workers or provide access to effective mechanisms to air grievances and seek remedies, because problems can only be solved through co-operation with freely established organisations. There is constant military intervention and repression of worker protests over wages and lay-offs, including showcase killings of leaders to stop workers claiming their rights. Workers who have been falsely associated with anti-military activities or spoken out against rights violations have been intimidated with death threats, kidnapped or arbitrarily sacked.


Employers take advantage of the prevailing political situation to maintain poverty wages and deny workers’ rights. Even companies which might wish to cannot exercise due diligence to respect fundamental workers’ and human rights openly abrogated by the military.


Europe’s blind eye

The European Union continues to turn a blind eye to the appalling situation facing those working for European and transnational companies and brands. While calling on the rest of the world to apply sanctions against Russia for waging war against Ukraine, the EU continues to give trade preferences to the Myanmar junta bombarding and killing our people.


According to the EU’s own regulation, ‘everything but arms’ preferences for least-developed countries are to support development and good governance. It foresees that ‘serious and systematic violations of the principles laid down in certain international conventions concerning core human rights and labour rights’ should lead to their withdrawal.


International fashion brands continue to source from Myanmar, because duty-free access to European markets makes production in Myanmar profitable. The EU is applying double standards by withdrawing similar preferences from neighbouring Cambodia for less severe violations of human and labour rights than those committed by the junta on a daily basis. Imports from Myanmar to the EU hit a record high last year.


Recently the EU provided €3 million to renew the MADE in Myanmar (Multi-stakeholder Alliance for Decent Employment in the Myanmar apparel industry) project, which is also funded by private-sector retailers and fashion companies. It is being implemented by sequa, which works in ‘close cooperation with the German business community’, and the European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar.


Protecting employers

MADE in Myanmar is a continuation of the SMART Myanmar project and the SMART Factories programme. These had been running, before the coup, in co-operation with the CTUM (and without any employer association), ‘to improve working conditions, promoting improved labour and environmental standards and reducing labour right abuses in Myanmar’s textile, clothing and footwear industries’.


After the coup, the SMART Factories programme shifted to providing training for management and workers to establish ‘workplace co-ordination committees’ (WCC) in garment factories—replacing the legitimate trade unions and labour organisations suppressed by the military. The programme has no interest in addressing our concerns about violations of freedom of association or workers’ complaints about rights and working conditions. Nor has it any mandate to address the interventions by the military and employers to establish these WCCs and ‘yellow’ unions at the workplace. The project has become a tool to protect the employer’s interest and legitimise the military-controlled business environment.


In addition to amending domestic laws and setting up military-controlled election committees in preparation for a sham election, the SAC convened tripartite meetings in February, inviting employers’ organisations, garment-factory management and WCCs to affirm that freedom of association would be respected under its rule. Our members were pressurised to attend and threatened with having to hold union re-elections to renew registration.


Supply chain of death

The claimed goals of SMART Myanmar / MADE in Myanmar—including ‘workplace relations’, ‘industry level dialogue’, ‘bi-partite relations’ and support for ‘labor rights organizations and trade unions’—cannot be achieved under martial law, where an elected civilian government, independent trade unions and civil society do not exist. Through its support, the EU is implicated in the ‘supply chain of death’ in Myanmar: the garment industry brought in $4.7 billion in export income during the first 11 months of the 2022-23 financial year. Those billions are used to buy aeroplanes, military vehicles, weapons, ammunition and dual-use fuel, to attack and kill Myanmar people and destroy their homes.


The project only legitimises a military-controlled labour relationship and social-dialogue mechanism. It is contrary to the 109th International Labour Conference resolution, which called in 2021 for the restoration of democracy to Myanmar, and is condemned by independent Myanmar trade unions and labour organisations and their members.


The European Commission should immediately cease funding any project that lends legitimacy to the junta and the SAC. And it should suspend the ‘everything but arms’ trade preferences to Myanmar, which contradict every principle underpinning EU trade policies—given the crimes against humanity being committed by the military regime.


Women workers in a Myanmar garment factory (IndustriALL Global Union, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Khaing Zar Aung is treasurer of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM) and president of the Industrial Workers' Federation of Myanmar (IWFM).


First published in Social Europe

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