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H&M Investigates Alleged Worker Exploitation in Myanmar Amid Growing Concerns

In light of escalating scrutiny, H&M is delving into 20 purported labor malpractices in Myanmar garment factories catering to its fashion needs. This comes shortly after a similar move by Zara’s parent company, Inditex, to diminish procurement from the region.

Last year saw a worrying spike in reported labor misconduct in Myanmar. A British human rights group documented a significant jump to 156 cases from February 2022 to February 2023, compared to 56 cases in the prior year. The surge postulates a potential regression in labor rights following the military upheaval in 2021.

Salient allegations encompassed wage slashes and non-payment. Additionally, there were notable reports on unjust terminations, oppressive work demands, and mandatory overtime, as disclosed in an upcoming report by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC).

H&M’s official response was one of commitment. They assured that each reported incident is receiving due attention and will be rectified, in collaboration with the concerned parties on a local and global scale. The Swedish brand voiced profound apprehension regarding the unfolding situation in Myanmar, recognizing the mounting obstacles in maintaining their corporate standards.

Since the military ascendancy, the BHRRC has been meticulously cataloging claims of labor rights violations across different factories, registering a total of 124 distinctive establishments. Their data accumulation methods comprise a mix of firsthand interviews, union interactions, and scrutinizing international and domestic media sources. However, it’s important to note that Reuters has not independently validated these accounts.

Regarding the 21 alleged abuse cases tied to Inditex vendors, Inditex remained tight-lipped. Requests for comments from the Myanmar military government and the Myanmar Garment Manufacturing Association went unanswered.

Made in Myanmar

Recent times have witnessed renowned brands such as Inditex, Primark, and Marks & Spencer reconsidering their affiliations with Myanmar suppliers. A prevailing apprehension is that this could potentially disadvantage the local garment workers.

On the other hand, a few brands have bolstered their supervisory operations. Field offices have sprouted up to facilitate in-house inspections, as opposed to external reviews. For instance, after deciding to halt its procurement from Myanmar, Dublin’s Primark amplified its Yangon staff count. Similarly, Denmark’s Bestseller amplified its workforce post the military take-over.

Brands like H&M and Bestseller are pillars of the European Union-backed initiative, MADE, focusing on uplifting Myanmar’s garment industry labor standards. The overarching sentiment of the EU is in favor of continued patronage to Myanmar’s textile domain, which plays a pivotal role in employment, catering to global brands.

Engaging in dialogues with local labor entities and syndicates about compensation and work conditions empowers brands to instigate positive change, remarked Karina Ufert, head of the European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar. Abandoning the region, she contended, could strip brands of their influence.

Offering a nuanced perspective, Vicky Bowman, the previous UK envoy to Myanmar and current director of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, elucidated that multinational brands are not only potential stable employment providers but also vigilant guardians against potential abuses. Exiting the market might either result in job evaporation or pave the way for less scrupulous agents with sole interests in inexpensive labor and minimal concerns about workplace welfare.

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