BANGKOK — The Rohingya humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is of great concern to international apparel buyers, who believe that the “devastating” situation requires urgent attention from global organizations.
Since August, when attacks from an insurgent group triggered widespread retaliation from the Myanmar military, more than 600,000 Rohingya — a minority population widely discriminated by the Myanmar people — have fled the country for neighboring Bangladesh. A major sourcing destination for international buyers, the Bangladeshi government is now overwhelmed by the exodus of the Rohingyas, and is struggling to set up and equip refugee camps along the Myanmar-Bangladeshi border.
Rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported evidence of systematic execution of civilians, brutal rapes of Rohingya women, and the razing of villages to chase out its residents. A top United Nations human rights official called the situation a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
While Myanmar’s apparel sector is nascent, it was set to take off due to the U.S. lifting sanctions last year. This move came following a democratic transition from Myanmar’s military regime to the current government led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Nate Herman, senior vice president of supply chain at the American Apparel and Footwear Association, said the situation in Myanmar is first and foremost a humanitarian concern that the association is taking very seriously.
“Reports of genocide or ethnic cleansing are very serious and will have implications beyond doing business in the country. The situation also threatens stability in another key supplier to the industry, Bangladesh, which is faced with the challenging of housing and feeding more than 500,000 Rohingya refugees that fled over the border from Myanmar,” Herman said in an e-mail, adding that the AAFA has been closely monitoring the situation and is in communication with its members and local contacts.
Gap Inc., the first major American retailer to source from Myanmar, has reached out to international development partners to try to be of assistance, spokeswoman Laura Wilkinson said in an e-mail. They have also contacted other apparel companies sourcing from Myanmar to see how they could “collectively help address this issue,” while contacting their suppliers in Bangladesh “to identify potential support solutions.”
“The Rohingya humanitarian crisis requires urgent attention from international actors,” she said. “While we have maintained a highly limited production footprint in Myanmar — only two facilities operated by longstanding Korean vendors — we have made it clear to our supplier partners that nondiscrimination in the workplace is a non-negotiable condition of doing business with Gap Inc.”
In response to “the devastating and urgent situation,” Swedish retailer H&M has donated $100,000 each to the Red Cross branches in both Bangladesh and Myanmar, a H&M spokesperson said.
Justifying their continued investment despite the ongoing atrocities committed by its military, H&M also believes that while it is unable to influence Myanmar’s leaders when it comes to issues of human rights as the country’s textile industry is very new, their own value chain is where the retailer is able to encourage change.
“The conclusion was that our presence in the country as a buyer within the textile industry would be positive, contributing to both democratization and poverty reduction. This is still our belief, “ the spokesperson said. “We have a responsibility to the people working at our suppliers, as well as to our business partners. We are following the developments closely within the country and the international discussions within the U.N. Security Council and EU.”
Myint Soe, chairman of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association, downplayed these concerns, and said that the reporting in international news outlets is fiction. “The buyers are not really complaining, but they are waiting to see the improvements in Myanmar. It’s only because of how the international media is reporting it — some of it is reality, and some is not reality,” Soe added. He declined to identify which part he considers to be untrue.
“We are negotiating with the Bangladeshi government on how to solve the refugee issue, not just for the Rakhinese but also for the Bengalis,” he said, using a different word to refer to the Rohingya. (Much of the country’s Buddhist population uses “Bengali” to refer to the Rohingya people because it implies that they originated from Bangladesh.)
Yet the U.S. government has already taken its first steps in pursuing “accountability,” according to the State Department, which includes ceasing the JADE Act travel waivers for current and former senior Myanmar military leadership, and considering targeted sanctions.
Also undergoing problems is Myanmar’s regional competitor, Cambodia. In the past two months, the Cambodian government has moved to shutter independent news outlets and radio stations, ousted a democracy watchdog organization, and arrested the president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party for alleged treason. Prime Minister Hun Sen has said the opposition party will be dissolved, a move that the U.S. State Department has said would “effectively disenfranchise the millions of people who voted for the CNRP in the 2013 and 2017 elections.”
The implications for the government’s continued moves against the opposition party may be worrying for the AAFA, but they are still monitoring the situation, the AAFA’s Herman said. “Any sort of political or social unrest is always a concern for businesses and will impact decisions regarding whether to continue sourcing from a region,” he said. “While it is too early to say how the situation in Cambodia will impact sourcing, our industry is closely monitoring reports and we are in communication with members regarding reports from the ground.”
Wilkinson, the Gap spokeswoman, said Gap is “deeply concerned,” and is focusing on advancing worker well-being and positive working conditions. “To us, this means doing our part to ensure workers’ fundamental rights at work are respected, while also working with the garment sector as a whole to make needed well-being investments in the workforce more broadly,” she said, adding that Gap is banding with the AAFA, the ILO Better Work, and the Ethical Trade Initiative to see how they can address the country’s political situation.
Kaing Monika, deputy secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, said worried buyers need only look at the improvements the industry has made over the past five years.
“Our minimum wage in the last five years has increased like almost by triple. There’s no reason to punish the well-performing actions of the government in terms of developing the economy, which affects the workers,” Kaing said.
Confirming that he met the labor minister last month alongside brand representatives and NGOs, Peter McAllister, executive director of ETI, said the group raised concerns about a draft minimum wage law that has some contentious parts, including punishment for protesting or expressing dissatisfaction with the wage. Though the ongoing political issues must be the preserve of “government-to-government discussions,” McAllister believes that civic and democratic institutions bolster a stable environment in which a country’s commercial potential may be reached.
“It is clear that stability, predictability and the rule of law form the cornerstone of business partnerships. It is also clear that this extends beyond labor rights to political and civil rights as articulated under the U.N.’s General Principles on Business and Human rights,” McAllister said. “It is therefore important to allow NGOs, trade unions and other civic institutions the space to operate freely and effectively so that they can make a positive contribution to the wider business environment.”