Covid led to ‘brutal crackdown’ on garment workers' rights, says report

Harriet Grant and Joshua Carroll
·6 min read
<span>Photograph: AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Some of Europe’s biggest retailers, including Primark, Zara and H&M, are failing to stop Covid-19 being used as a pretext for union busting, human rights activists are warning.

Millions of garment workers in some of the poorest parts of Asia have lost their jobs since coronavirus shutdowns hit the retail industry worldwide.

A new report, from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRCC), portrays an “emerging and widespread pattern of supplier factories appearing to target unionised workers for dismissal”.

The report highlights nearly 5,000 job losses it argues are linked to union membership at nine factories in Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India. Workers say they have been disproportionately targeted due to union membership and organising.

Thulsi Narayanasamy, senior labour rights lead at BHRRC, said: “Workers face a brutal crackdown when exercising their most fundamental rights, and brands aren’t stepping up enough to ensure workers in their supply chains are protected.

“Threatening the right to organise collectively and be part of a trade union at such a critical time … stops them from being able to ensure they are paid wages, are safe at work and free from harassment.”

Among the cases mentioned in the report are a supplier in India making clothes for H&M that sacked 1,200 workers in June citing lack of orders because of Covid-19. Meanwhile, the supplier’s other factories remained open. Workers and unions claim the closed factory was the supplier’s only one with a union, and was targeted for this reason.

As production slowed in the garment sector in Asia as a result of plummeting sales caused by the pandemic, factories began to make thousands of workers redundant across the region.

By early April, in Bangladesh a million garment workers had been sent home without pay or had lost their jobs after western clothing brands cancelled or suspended £2.4bn of existing orders.

But activists have warned that redundancies were being used to target union members and leaders.

The report looks in detail at several ongoing disputes between unionised workers and managers in factories in India, Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India. In every case it is alleged that big name brands should have been more active in ensuring workers were not punished or targeted for being union members.

Three factories owned by the Windy Group in Bangladesh, which supplies Inditex – the Spanish owner of Zara – and H&M, sacked 3,000 workers. The workers say the dismissals are linked to union activism, although in a statement H&M told the Guardian that agreements had been reached at two of the factories. “As always, we work to facilitate a dialogue between the parties to help them resolve the conflict peacefully,” it said.

In Cambodia, a young female worker, Soy Sros, was jailed for 55 days over a Facebook post criticising the factory’s plans to sack union members.

Related: Jailed for a Facebook post: garment workers' rights at risk during Covid-19

In Myanmar, 107 garment workers making clothes for Inditex, Primark and US chain Bestseller were sacked three days after they registered a new union.

A worker called Thitsar at the Huabo Times factory told the Guardian in June that a few weeks after the sackings, workers from another factory were transferred over to fill the gap.

Primark said it worked to resolve the dispute. “In collaboration with other brands, Primark’s investigation into code violation allegations at the Huabo Times factory has resulted in constructive cooperation between all parties. An agreement has now been reached between the factory and the union, which will see the reinstatement of the workers involved, with compensation in full for lost earnings.”

This week Primark said it would pay its suppliers in full for all outstanding finished garments.

Inditex is linked in the report to four disputes, three of which have been resolved through negotiations. A spokesperson said: “As the BHRRC points out, in each dispute where we are a customer of the factory concerned, we have engaged with owners and workers’ representatives to drive social dialogue towards a resolution. Respect for freedom of association is a key principle of Inditex’s code of conduct. ”

Several of the companies named in the report, including Primark, Levi Strauss, Inditex, H&M and Mango, all stressed in responses to the BHRCC and the Guardian that they are committed to protecting workers’ rights to join and form unions and bargain collectively.

The cases highlighted in the report are, activists say, the tip of the iceberg.

The Guardian spoke to a worker in a Yangon factory that makes clothes for Primark who fears he was violently attacked because of his union role.

‘Next time you’ll die’

Soe Min Thu believes bosses at the Amber Stone factory in Yangon where he works hired men to attack him as part of an “aggressive, illegal” campaign to stop workers organising for better conditions.

Soe Min Thu said he was hospitalised for two days in June when four masked men attacked him with knives and clubs after he left work.

“We do not like you much in the factory, we’ve been watching you,” he recalled them saying. “If you keep working with the union … then next time you’ll die.” He was left with his arm in a cast and gashes on his head and leg.

On the day he was beaten, Soe Min Thu said a group of men came to the factory and supervisors pointed out union leaders to them. He claims the factory had hired guards to monitor him and other senior union members during working hours since they formed the union in April.

Shortly before the attack, the factory fired 29 union members after a heated dispute between workers and a supervisor, who was also fired.

Workers gather under temporary shelter as they demand labor rights outside a garment factory on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, 26 March 2020.
Workers gather under temporary shelter as they demand labor rights outside a garment factory on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar, 26 March 2020. Photograph: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

Zin Mar Htay, one of the sacked workers, told the Guardian that before she was fired she worked six days a week and earned the equivalent of £107 a month, £127 if she worked overtime.

She said factory supervisors were abusive, calling female workers “whores”. Other workers allege that fire safety is lax at the factory.

Amber Stone’s owner, Zhang Zuwei, strongly denied hiring men to attack Soe Min Thu and refutes all the allegations. She denied supervisors were abusive or that she had hired men to intimidate union members in the factory. The sackings, she added, were not “an action targeting the union” but because of an altercation on the premises between workers. She said the case would be settled though formal arbitration.

Soe Min Thu has reported his attackers to the police, but says he doubts they will be caught. The attack will not stop him working with the union at the factory, he said. “We are doing the right thing.”

Primark said it was shocked by the alleged assault and “firmly condemned such practices”. It said it had “engaged directly with the union, and has held a constructive meeting with them to discuss their concerns”.

“We are working towards a further meeting between Primark, its supplier, the factory and the unions.”

It added that it was working to reinstate the sacked workers “with full compensation for lost earnings and assurances that the standards in our code [of conduct] will be strictly adhered to going forward”.

Primark said the factory passed a fire safety inspection during an audit in September.