Fashion’s human rights record is worse than ever

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

But the suspension was short-lived. Within months H&M was again ordering from the country, a move the company said at the time was meant to protect the livelihoods of garment workers.

Since then, dozens of 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 remove labor rights, according to a report by the Business & Human Rights Resource. . Center published this week.

The study identified more than 100 cases of labor and human rights abuse in factories linked to fashion companies, including the owner of Zara, Inditex, H&M Group and Mango. Harassment, intimidation, wage theft and attacks on unions were among the most 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 he is no longer working in Myanmar. H&M Group declined to comment.

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

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

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

Now, navigating these issues is only becoming more complex and urgent.

Brands face a geopolitical and ethical Gordian knot in China, where years of repressive policies against the country’s Uyghur ethnic group have prompted the US to ban imports from the cotton-growing region of Xinjiang. Companies that have raised concerns about forced labor have faced a backlash from consumers in one of the world’s biggest markets. Cotton from Xinjiang is likely still entering global supply chains.

The ongoing fallout from the pandemic, climate change, and inflationary and economic headwinds caused by the war in Ukraine are exacerbating the situation elsewhere in the fashion supply chain.

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

There are no easy solutions or quick fixes. Myanmar and Xinjiang represent extreme cases. In many cases, severing ties with established manufacturing partners only hurts workers, and any exit must be managed carefully.

Companies should focus on improving traceability so they know where products come from and can identify and manage problems. Brands must also seek to actively change the way they interact with suppliers so that the risks of manufacturing and operating responsibly are shared more equitably. And there must be active support for local labor movements that can advocate for workers, address issues on the ground as they arise, and negotiate legally binding protections at the sectoral level.

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