H&M is investigating 20 alleged instances of labour abuse at Myanmar garment factories that supply the world’s second-largest fashion retailer, it told Reuters, just weeks after top rival Zara owner Inditex said it was phasing out purchases from the Southeast Asian country.
A British-based human rights advocacy group, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), tracked 156 cases of alleged worker abuses in Myanmar garment factories from February 2022 to February 2023, up from 56 in the previous year, indicating a deterioration of workers’ rights since a military coup in February 2021.
Wage reduction and wage theft were the most frequently reported allegations, followed by unfair dismissal, inhumane work rates, and forced overtime, according to the report by the non-governmental organisation, seen by Reuters and is set to be published on Wednesday.
“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. “We are deeply concerned by the latest developments in Myanmar, and we see increased challenges to conduct our operations according to our standards and requirements,” the Swedish retailer said. The BHRRC has been tracking allegations of workers’ rights abuses in garment factories since the military junta took power in Myanmar, plunging it into political and humanitarian crisis.
The tracker includes abuse cases at 124 separate factories. The BHRRC said it tracks cases of alleged abuses through sources including union leaders, international media, and local media, and seeks to verify reports by checking with brands and interviewing workers. Reuters did not independently verify its findings.
There have been 21 cases of alleged abuses linked to Inditex suppliers over the two-year period, and 20 linked to H&M suppliers, according to the report. Inditex declined to comment on the report. A spokesperson for Myanmar’s military government did not reply to a request for comment. The Myanmar Garment Manufacturing Association also did not reply to a request for comment.
Made in Myanmar
Spanish group Inditex was the latest brand to say it would cut ties with Myanmar suppliers, after Primark and Marks & Spencer last year, in a trend that some say could ultimately leave garment workers worse off.
Primark said the decision to stop sourcing was “very difficult”. It expects final orders from Myanmar to ship before the end of this year, but has also increased its presence on the ground. “As we work towards our exit, we’ve doubled the size of our Ethical Trade team on the ground, enabling us to more regularly visit the factories we still work with and giving us greater visibility,” Primark said on Wednesday.
Other brands continuing to source from Myanmar have also ramped up monitoring of suppliers through field offices enabling them to conduct their own inspections instead of relying on external audits. Danish fashion company Bestseller increased its number of staff on the ground from three to 11 since the BHRRC found in a survey of brands. Bestseller did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
H&M and Bestseller are among 18 brands that are part of the European Union-funded MADE project aimed at improving
labour conditions in Myanmar’s garment factories.