According to various sources, H&M and Zara have stopped buying apparel from factories in Myanmar due to reports of labor abuses in the country since the military coup in February 2021.
The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) reports that the most frequent alleged abuses include wage reduction, wage theft, unfair dismissal, inhumane work rates, and forced overtime.
H&M said it was “deeply concerned by the latest developments in Myanmar” and that it faced “increased challenges to conduct our operations according to our standards and requirements”.
“All the cases raised in the report by BHRRC are being followed up and where needed remediated through our local team on the ground and in close cooperation with relevant stakeholders,” H&M said in a statement.
Zara’s owner Inditex also said it was “phasing out” sourcing from Myanmar. Both brands are among the world’s largest fashion retailers and have been sourcing from Myanmar for years.
The BHRRC said it tracks cases of alleged abuses through sources including union leaders, international media, and local media such as Myanmar Labour News, and seeks to verify reports by checking with brands and interviewing workers. Reuters has not independently verified its findings.
A spokesperson for Myanmar’s military government did not reply to a request for comment on the findings. The Myanmar Garment Manufacturing Association did not reply to a request for comment.
The decision by Inditex to cut ties with Myanmar suppliers came after Primark (ABF.L) and Marks & Spencer (MKS.L) announced plans to exit last year, in a trend that some say could ultimately leave garment workers worse off.
Surprisingly, the EU’s stance is that companies should continue sourcing from Myanmar, where the garment industry is a key employer, with more than 500 factories producing clothes and shoes for big brands.
“By engaging as a company in discussions with local labour rights groups and trade unions on wages and labour conditions you can have leverage,” said Karina Ufert, CEO at the European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar. “By leaving the country, it is difficult to see how you can have an influence on local conditions.”
H&M and Zara’s decision to stop buying apparel from factories in Myanmar could have a catastrophic impact on the Myanmar economy and its workers. The garment industry is a key employer in the country, with more than half a million workers and exports worth $4.6 billion in 2019. Some experts have warned that cutting ties with Myanmar suppliers could ultimately leave garment workers worse off, as they would lose their income and social protection.
Vicky Bowman, former British ambassador to Myanmar and director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, said the international brands under pressure to stop buying from Myanmar were also the most likely to provide stable jobs and take additional steps to guard against rights abuses.
“If they leave, either the jobs disappear entirely, or factories scrabble to receive orders from footloose buying agents who care only about cheap labour and do not worry about factory conditions,” Bowman told Reuters.