Half an hour earlier, Than Zaw, who asked to use a pseudonym citing safety concerns, said another employee described overhearing the factory’s manager on the phone to someone who he believed to be an official from the junta. With stories of his compatriots being arrested, tortured and killed in military custody since the Feb.1 coup at the forefront of his mind, Than Zaw scaled a six-foot wall to get away. He hasn't returned to the factory since.
“When I realised they were after me, I was in shock,” he said. “I did no crime. I would rather die running than get arrested in the military's hands.”
In early November, security forces once again raided Gasan Apparel as workers continue to accuse the factory’s senior management of calling on the junta to do their dirty work. Ma Moe Sandar Myint, leader of the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM), one of the country’s largest garment worker unions, said various members informed her that management at Gasan Apparel and Rui-Ning, another factory in Yangon, have been “acting as informants” for the junta for months.
“It's really easy for brands to cut and run,” said Manny Maung, a Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They couldn't guarantee the labor rights in the factories they were ordering from, but what have they done to help workers? Are they able to vouch for workers at other factories in the country? This industry is still really opaque, even more so because of the military dictatorship.”
When security forces arrived at Gasan Apparel again earlier this month, some six months after the May raid that saw Than Zaw flee, it was allegedly at the behest of the factory’s senior managers. There had been a weekslong workers' strike against salary and benefit cuts at the factory, which until recent months supplied Spanish brand Mango, as well as South Korea’s Komont and Westwood. Junta soldiers and police were called on to break it, according to local media, unions and garment workers interviewed by The Fuller Project and VICE World News. No arrests were made, but soldiers took employees’ pictures, and many say they fear looming repercussions.
“The informant Kyaw Kyaw AKA Kyaw Gyi, who is oppressing the laborers together with [the military’s State Administrative Council], is now sent to hell by our group.”
Kyaw Kyaw had a reputation for oppressing factory workers, according to a member of the Rui-Ning union, who asked to remain anonymous given the heightened tension. “He always threatened that he would call the military to arrest us,” they said. After months of deteriorating workplace rights under military threat, some workers say the latest spate of violence, which threatens to escalate further, is taking its toll. “We are not OK,” said Swe Mar, a Gasan Apparel employee who asked to use a pseudonym, citing fear of reprisal. “We are struggling for our lives.”Half a dozen workers, as well as unions from both Gasan Apparel and Rui-Ning, say senior management has colluded with the military, providing security forces with the names of union leaders. Employees, unions and local media also say senior management at Gasan Apparel have personal ties with the military.
“Workers at Gasan Apparel have been fighting factory management [since] well before the coup, and they’ve been telling me for years that management is connected to the military,” said Andrew Tillett-Saks, Myanmar country director for The Solidarity Centre, a U.S.-based international workers’ rights organization. “There’s many examples of employers and the military working hand in glove—it’s pretty widespread,” he added. Tension between management and workers has long been brewing in Myanmar’s garment sector. Before the coup, garment workers, roughly 90 percent of whom are women, rose up regularly inside factories to protest poverty wages and abysmal conditions. Since February, stitchers and seamstresses have rolled up their sleeves and drawn slogans denouncing the military government. They’ve been on the front lines of demonstrations, launching general strikes and building on their tight networks to organize mass protests and fight for democracy.
“A lot of women have joined unions and are learning about their labor rights. And it’s a threat to the system,” said Maung of Human Rights Watch. “Women were the ones to lead the protests because they don’t want things to regress and go back to a very patriarchal society under military rule. Things have changed a lot in the last 10 years.”
Zara’s parent company Inditex cut ties with Gasan Apparel in May and blocked Rui-Ning from its supply chain in early spring, meaning no orders can be placed with the factory, according to an individual familiar with the company’s sourcing in the region.
Mango also confirmed it pulled production from Gasan Apparel in September but continues to operate in more factories across the country. The company said in an email that it is “deeply worried” about the situation in Myanmar but is “following what is happening” on the ground through its local in-country teams and relationship with the CCOO, one of Spain’s largest unions, and “hopes” a solution can be found soon.Neither Komont nor Westwood replied to multiple requests for comment. While Bestseller stopped placing new orders across its suppliers in August, H&M and Primark said in statements they are continuing to work with local stakeholders to address any issues that arise.
The net impact of this partial retreat among brands, as well as that of a wider boycott of the Myanmar economy, is an issue that sharply divides opinion.
“Garment workers harbour a lot of hatred and resentment toward the regime because the attacks and arrests happened right under their noses… But then you think, if you don't do this garment job, what would you do?”
“I do not see any positive benefit of investment in Myanmar for workers,” said FGWM’s Ma Moe Sandar Myint, a member of the alliance. “This is a moment for us to stand together. If we don’t stand together with the Burmese people, they will be crushed.”Critics of comprehensive sanctions or withdrawal by foreign businesses argue it could lead to mass unemployment in an economy already dealing with heavy job losses. At least four labor unions don’t agree with blanket sanctions, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma, one of Myanmar's largest independent media organizations.“Garment workers harbour a lot of hatred and resentment toward the regime because the attacks and arrests happened right under their noses,” said Htwe Htwe Thein, an associate professor of international business at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. “But then you think, if you don't do this garment job, what would you do?”
For Swe Mar, a Gasan Apparel employee, her priority is surviving day to day on an ever-diminishing salary.
Additional reporting by Mone.
Louise Donovan is a reporter with The Fuller Project, a global nonprofit newsroom reporting on issues that affect women. Maung Moe is a contributing reporter for The Fuller Project.