As Burma (also known as Myanmar) opened itself to the world in recent years, companies from Coca-Cola to Chevron to garment manufacturers invested in this Southeast Asian nation home to 53 million people. As Reuters reports, foreign direct investment (FDI) in Burma last year reached over $8.1 billion as companies see cheap labor in the short term and a robust market in the long run.
The garment industry, always looking for countries where operating costs are low, has been a huge investor in Burma over the past few years. But there’s an ugly side to this trend. And this case became evident as H&M was embarrassed by revelations that teens as young as 14 years old were found working within factories contracted with the fast-fashion giant.
Two Swedish authors, whose book on the garment industry will be released next week, interviewed girls who worked for factories as young as 14 years old, and whose workdays in factories went as late as 10 p.m. and as long as 12 hours a day. The book, “Modeslavar” (“Working Slave”), alleges that the garment industry has made little progress despite the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy in Bangladesh. That factory’s collapse, which killed over 1,100 people and injured another 2,000 workers, exposed many wrongs within the garment industry as many labor activists accused some of the world’s leading fashion brands of not doing enough to address the human-rights violations endemic within the sector. Tobias Andersson Akerbom and Moa Core Strand, however, say in their book that despite promises of reform, the industry is still driven by a search for the lowest wages at the expense of poor workers’ health and safety.
According to a report issued last fall by Oxfam, conditions throughout Burma’s garment factories are abysmal. Workers within the sector usually work six days a week and put in 10.5 hours of overtime weekly on average. Although the Burmese government instituted a minimum wage a year ago, that $83 monthly wage is often not enough to support workers’ families. Furthermore, 1 in 3 workers claimed to have been injured on the job. Verbal abuse is also the norm during working hours, and 1 in 4 workers said they were forced to work overtime. Working during lunch breaks and late at night are the norm as building doors are often blocked or even locked so workers cannot leave.
A World Bank analysis, while far more Pollyanna-ish than Oxfam’s stark assessment, acknowledges the Burmese government has a long way to go before any industry can manufacture goods within the country with a clear conscience.
As the Guardian reports, H&M says it has taken action on the two factories in Burma where these abuses were reported. But the company also defended itself by saying that, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), working 14-year-olds are not considered child labor in Burma. Other fashion companies contacted by the publication which contracted with factories in Burma said they had policies in place to prevent younger workers from being employed. Burmese children between the ages of 13 and 15, however, can do “light work” that does not have an impact on their health, safety or education. But as in the case of many developing countries, oversight is lax while competition within the garment industry is fierce.
The United Nations’ International Conventions on Child Labor has a strict definition of what age is too young to work in a potentially dangerous environment such as a garment factory. In no way may children under the age of 18 work in a place that jeopardizes their “health, safety or morals,” with that age lowered to 16 only under very strict conditions.
But Burma is not a signatory to these U.N. conventions. And the evidence suggests that if the garment industry does not do a better job of working with labor organizations to ensure Burma does not become yet another Bangladesh, the world could witness another tragedy in the quest to produce cheap clothing at the expense of human rights.
Image credit: World Bank