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Fashion’s Human Rights Record Is Worse Than Ever

A new report exposing abuse of garment workers at factories linked to major brands in Myanmar points to ways mounting political and economic instability are worsening human rights risks in fashion’s supply chain.
Protesters in Yangon, Myanmar make a three fingers salute while holding a sparkler during flash-mob protest in December, months after a military coup.
Protestors in Yangon, Myanmar in December, months after a military coup that has prompted unions to call on fashion brands to withdraw from the country. (Santosh Krl/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

When the military overthrew Myanmar’s government last year, big fashion brands were swift to condemn the coup. In its violent aftermath, some, including H&M Group, even paused sourcing from the Southeast Asian manufacturing hub.

But the suspension was short lived. Within months H&M was placing orders in the country again, a move the company said at the time was intended to protect the livelihoods of garment workers.

Since then, dozens of trade union activists have been killed and hundreds arrested for campaigning for a return to democracy, while factories have collaborated with the military to target garment workers and roll back labour rights, according to a report by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre published this week.

The study identified more than 100 cases of labour and human rights abuses in factories linked to fashion companies including Zara-owner Inditex, H&M Group and Mango. Harassment, intimidation, wage theft and attacks on unions were among the most commonly cited issues.

Inditex disputed some of the allegations and said it had worked with suppliers to resolve any issues in a written response to the report. Mango said it is no longer working in Myanmar. H&M Group declined to comment.

Unions in Myanmar and internationally have called on brands to exit the country, arguing it is impossible for major fashion companies to keep operating there without breaching their own codes of practice.

Myanmar only has a small share of the global apparel market, but the situation is symptomatic of the mounting challenge brands face in balancing ethics and security of supply in an increasingly fractured and unstable world.

The risk of issues like child labour, modern slavery, wage theft and worker suppression have been increasing in fashion’s supply chain for years, with the pandemic exacerbating the trend, according to a report published by risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft last year.

Now, navigating those issues is only becoming more complex and more pressing.

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Brands face a geopolitical and ethical Gordian knot in China, where years of repressive policies against the country’s Uighur ethnic group have prompted the US to ban imports from the cotton-producing region of Xinjiang. Companies that have raised concerns about forced labour have faced a consumer backlash in one of the world’s largest markets. Cotton from Xinjiang is likely still making its way into global supply chains.

Ongoing fallout from the pandemic, climate change and inflationary and economic headwinds precipitated by the war in Ukraine are making the situation elsewhere in fashion’s supply chain worse.

The consequences of inaction are also becoming more severe, with regulators demanding companies take more responsibility for misdeeds in their supply chain and investors requiring more information about potential risks.

There is no simple solution or quick fix. Myanmar and Xinjiang represent extreme cases. In many instances, cutting ties with established manufacturing partners only hurts workers and any exit must be managed carefully.

Companies need to focus on improving traceability so they know where products are coming from and can identify and manage problems. Brands should also look to actively change the way they interact with suppliers, so manufacturing risks and the costs of operating responsibly are shared more equitably. And there needs to be active support for local labour movements who can advocate for workers, address issues on the ground when they arise and negotiate legally binding protections at a sectoral level.

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