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The Devil Wears Fast Fashion: Myanmar’s Clothing Dilemma

While the usual contenders of Paris, London, and Milan persist in the battle for the fashion capital of the world, their chances in the global arena have recently been trumped by the emergence of a new competitor: Myanmar. 

Much to the world’s surprise, clothing exports have recently dominated Myanmar’s exports this year, reaching a record high of $3.3 billion. The underlying cause, with Myanmar as well as other developing countries, is the fast fashion industry exploiting opportunities for cheap labor. Fast fashion refers to the fast production of high volumes of clothing using low-quality materials to produce relatively cheap clothing items to the public. Well known fast fashion retailers around the world, including H&M, Zara, Primark, and Tesco, depend on Myanmar factories for their garments. 

Following Myanmar’s 2021 military coup that ousted the democratically elected ruling party, the harsh transition in power severely impacted workers’ rights and substantially lowered workplace standards. The Business and Human Rights Resource Center reports labor violations that include excessive work hours, wage theft, and reports of sexual and physical harassment. Roughly 85% of workers stated they received no payment for overtime work since the coup, and over 40% of respondent workers reported instances of sexual harassment.  

Even before the coup, the military junta maintained a large degree of power in the political and social realm of citizens’ lives through its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). But as support for democracy rose in Myanmar, the military confronted threats to its dominant position. On an economic level, the increase in democratic reforms endangered the status of military owned business monopolies that have consistently fed wealth and power to the generals and their cronies. The “radical” democratization tipping point that instigated the coup were the election results in 2020 that heavily favored the National League for Democracy (NLD) Party. The USDP immediately characterized the election results as fraudulent but has yet to introduce any evidence that supports this claim, only vaguely citing a “widespread violation of laws.” Under the guise that the election was irregular, the USDP have defended their title as the current reigning governmental authority. 

Now, it seems that nothing can jeopardize the power of the USDP, especially claims to human rights and universal personal freedoms. The crackdown on dissent isn’t limited to journalistic outlets: the junta is threatening a plethora of trade unions, union leaders and nongovernmental organizations for encouraging the spread of democratic sentiments, making it virtually impossible to improve the current working conditions at all. Only a month after the coup, the military government proclaimed 16 labor organizations as illegal. 

Unions have been historically instrumental in establishing proper working conditions within the factories in Myanmar; their disappearance deteriorates any remaining hope for the factory workers. Union involvement in the negotiations of minimum wage in 2015, for example, heavily swayed the conclusive decision to increase minimum wage. Without union groups, Myanmar factory workers are left with no representation, no basic rights, and no methods of defense. 

Thus arises the question: should fashion industries stop purchasing from Myanmar factories because of the extensive human rights violations, or should they continue business for the purpose of preserving a workforce that many Myanmar individuals rely so heavily on for employment?

 The consensus: none, naturally.

Adidas, CP company, and Bestseller have decided to continue production in Myanmar. On the other hand, Uniqlo announced in April it had begun the process of ceasing production in Myanmar factories. In June and August, H&M and Zara withdrew. European brands Primark, Aldi South Group, and Tesco also announced their departure. Should other companies follow suit—or tie themselves to Myanmar?

Labor groups argue that companies should not cease production in Myanmar for fear of the potential effect on employment distribution. The Ethical Trading Initiative reports that a projected 320,000 workers will be unemployed or receive significantly reduced wages as a result of fashion companies’ exits from Myanmar factories. The coming months will truly show the damage the mass exodus will have on people who rely on the garment industry for their livelihoods. 

Contrarily, continuing business with Myanmar will essentially praise the actions of the junta in stripping fundamental human rights in workplace settings, providing the militaristic government an incentive to further reduce wages and overwork their workers. With the continuance of some garment companies, Myanmar’s economic system won’t be affected enough to truly induce substantial change in governmental behavior.

The social and economic implications of clothing companies pulling out of Myanmar inevitably boils down to the deeper question of whether the globalization induced outsourcing strategies are generally beneficial for both involved parties’ economies or if it truly only benefits the developed country. From an employment lens, global interconnectedness through outsourcing policies have created more jobs in developing countries that lack large firms. India’s sustainable economic growth is just one example of the benefits of outsourcing behavior. India not only experienced economic advantages but also became more adept at using technology in all aspects of their workforce, initiating more efficient work strategies as a whole. Employment dramatically increased as a result of outsourcing, especially with the number of women in the workforce. Nasscom India reveals women consisted of roughly 50% of the business process outsourcing labor force. There is no doubt the workforce would be severely compromised if these companies pulled out of business with India, further shining light on the issue in Myanmar. The business exit may negatively affect Myanmar’s workforce.

Nevertheless, the promise of employment shouldn’t come at the cost of enduring massive human rights abuses. The Russia-Ukraine crisis provides an illustrative example. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent international condemnation provoked the withdrawal of private enterprises from business in Russia. The global consensus seemed to be that economic repercussions could be a means to gain political leverage against Russia. Hence, this conflict underscored the salience of human rights as a relevant consideration for international businesses.

Indeed, in recent years, corporations have developed a sense of overarching political power and a more pronounced voice in the global balance of power. Their decisions on the international scale truly matter now. The greater influence private corporations now have has initiated their evolution into powerful diplomatic players, instilling a higher incentive for governments to alter oppressive policies. This may be the case for Myanmar.

Context is key, however. While comparing Myanmar to past events is an integral part of framing the conflict and providing information on the most effective response mechanisms, the future of Myanmar is unknown—but what is known is that the devil doesn’t just wear fast fashion: he wears power politics. 

Featured Image Source: New York Times

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