NEW YORK (AP) — Tin Tin Wei used to toil 11 hours a day, six days week sewing jackets at a factory in Myanmar. But she hasn’t stitched a single garment since a coup in February.
Instead, the 26-year-old union organiser has been protesting in the streets — and trying to bring international pressure to bear on the newly installed junta.
Her union, the Federation of Garment Workers (FGW) in Myanmar, and others have been staging general strikes to protest the coup and are urging major international brands like H&M and Mango, which source some of their products in Myanmar, to denounce the takeover and put more pressure on factories to protect workers from being fired or harassed — or worse arrested and killed for participating in the protests.
“If we go back to work and if we work for the system, our future is in the darkness, and we will lose our labour rights and even our human rights,” said Tin Tin Wei, who has been a clothing factory worker since age 13.
The response from companies so far has been mixed.
Only a few have said they would curtail their business in Myanmar.
Most others have put out statements that stop short of taking action, saying that while they denounce the coup, they want to support the workers by providing them with jobs.
Tin Tin Wei’s union and the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU) in Myanmar have also been demanding comprehensive international sanctions — not the targetted sanctions some have imposed — to bring down the junta that ousted the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
As international sanctions were dropped in the mid-2010s when Myanmar began shifting toward democracy after decades of military rule and started to set some labour standards, Western brands looking to diversify their sourcing were attracted to the country’s cheap labour. Broad sanctions now would cripple that burgeoning clothing industry, which has been growing rapidly in recent years before the coronavirus pandemic cut orders and eliminated jobs.
Comprehensive sanctions co-uld wreck the livelihoods of more than 600,000 garment workers, but some union leaders said they would rather see massive layoffs than endure military oppression.
“I need to do some sort of sacrifice in the short term for the long term for our next generation,” said Tin Tin Wei, who is the sole breadwinner in her family and has been receiving food donations.
The Civil Disobedience Move-ment (CDM) has included railway workers, truck drivers, hospital, bank employees and many others determined to stifle the economy.
The aim is “no participation with the junta at all”, said migrant labour organiser Sein Htay, who returned to Myanmar from Thailand said in an emailed comment.
He added, “We believe that CDM is really working. So we are motivated to continue.”