In Myanmar in south-east Asia, unions were allowed to form in 2012, explains Khaing Zar Aung, a former garment worker and the president of the Burmese garment workers union the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM)
Before then, garment workers had just one day off a month, unless there was a rush order that needed fulfilling, in which case they had to work on their day off as well. The introduction of unions allowed the workers to strike without being arrested – the ability to freely do this and collectively bargain meant that unions were able to make sure workers could benefit from social security, they were given one day off a week, annual leave with pay was introduced, a minimum wage was established, and those physically or sexually abusing workers were taken to court.

In February 2021, the military overthrew the democratically elected government. “Many of the union leaders were arrested and hounded at factories and at home,” explains Khaing. “The factories announced the collective agreement was cancelled, members were forced to work overtime, and many don’t get paid because the productivity target is beyond capacity so they can’t finish within working hours. They are also forced to work Sundays so they can reach their target.”

In a garment factory producing for a big brand, garment workers earn US$1.23 a day for 10 hours’ work, equivalent to around £1.00, reports Khaing. There is no longer a system to help workers subjected to physical or sexual abuse.  Unlike Kalpona in Bangladesh and Yannick in Haiti, Khaing is very clear that she wants brands to boycott the region to help weaken the military and restore democracy. When asked whether closing factories and therefore making people redundant will make garment workers’ lives even harder, her response is bleak: “Workers are already starving while they are working. They are under slavery.”

She wants brands to leave responsibly, by paying workers properly for what they have done and informing them of how and when the factory will close. “We want the brands to support the workers.” Brands have boycotted Russia, she points out – why not Myanmar?

“We are working to remove the military – the trade unions and civilised society, we are working together.

“We still believe we have a chance to remove the military junta within a short period of time if international businesses do not work in Myanmar and do not bring foreign currency to Myanmar, which is being used for buying weapons and jet fuel to kill democracy protectors, including trade unions.”