Hundreds of workers at two factories in Myanmar that produce clothing for Zara and Primark were fired days after forming a union in a move workers say targeted union supporters under the pretense that layoffs were related to the coronavirus. Zara is the main brand of Inditex, the largest clothing retailer in the world.
At the Huabo Times factory, days after filing a registration for their union, workers noted management terminated over 100 workers, primarily union members and supporters, and transferred 200 non-union workers from a different factory to replace them four days after the dismissals.
At the Rui-Ning factory, 298 union members were fired from the factory in early May 2020. The union registered at Rui-Ning in February 2020.
“I see the firing as clearly union-busting under the pretext of the pandemic. The factory fired most of the union members, including myself,” said Kyaw Thu Zaw, a worker at the Rui-Ning factory for about 10 months and president of the union. “They gave the excuse of difficulty in transporting products to Europe, but in reality there was no difficulty as the factory transported a bulk of products to destination countries on 12 May.”
He noted regular shifts consisted of 10-hour work days, six days a week, with workers expected to regularly work overtime in order to make enough money to survive. Workers at the factory make around $3 per day.
“Inditex must enforce decent and humane working conditions in the factories where they make their clothes. They make public statements about equality and sustainability, but here we are in the flesh suffering,” added Kyaw Thu Zaw.
The fired workers sent a letter to Zara founder Don Amancio Ortega, the sixth wealthiest person in the world with a net worth of over $66bn, according to Forbes.
“When the pandemic began, many workers like us continued to make your clothes even as factory management initially failed to grant us safety measures such as face masks and social distancing as a way to protect ourselves and our families from Covid-19. Now, the management has seized upon the global crisis as an opportunity to destroy our unions, dismissing union members en masse,” the workers at two clothing factories in Myanmar wrote to Ortega.
“Supervisors yell and use rude language, refer to us as animals, tell workers they are dogs, and use that language to get workers to hit high production targets,” said Thuzar Htwe, one of fired workers who led the union. “There’s never punishment of supervisors for harassment.”
She explained the sanitary conditions at the factory are poor, including the toilets, where instead of a septic tank, a foot-wide pipe from toilets dumps sewage into a canal right outside the factory. The foul smell permeates the designated lunch break area for workers, who are forced to eat and put up with it or risk being written up with a warning, which often leads to termination.
The clothing factory workers at the Huabo Times factory also produce clothing for Primark. Fired pro-union employees sent a separate letter to Primark calling for reinstatement of employees, and for the company to mediate a resolution.
According to the workers, the layoffs were justified at the factory by citing proper social distancing to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But they noted only 107 out of 1,800 workers were laid off, and days after the termination an additional 200 workers from a different factory were brought in to replace them.
Workers attempted to form a union because there was no employment contract outlining rules and responsibilities of the employer, and workers wanted to hold the employer accountable for suppressing and breaching rights of workers.
“The employer dismissed workers during the rainy season so it’s very difficult to find a new job,” said Naing Win San, another union leader who was fired from the factory. “They used coronavirus as an excuse for the firing, but the employer dismissed all our members and supporters. All 107 workers are all related to the union.”
A spokesperson for Inditex said Zara is just one of several customers at the two factories, and said they are pushing for dialogue between management and the union to resolve the dispute.
“We demand that all our suppliers respect the right to freedom of association. We are working closely with our suppliers at this difficult time and we expect continued compliance with our code of conduct, which clearly requires fair treatment of workers and expressly forbids discrimination against workers’ representatives,” said the spokesperson.
“We are aware of the cases mentioned and while we are only one of the customers of each of these factories, in each dispute we are engaging with the factory owners to drive social dialogue with workers to find a resolution.”
A spokesperson for Primark said in an email the company’s code of conduct affirms all workers have the right to join or form a union.
“We are in contact with both the union and the supplier, who has entered into dialogue with the union and the ministry of labour, to determine further details,” said the spokesperson.
“Once our investigation has concluded, if a breach has been identified we will work with the supplier on remediation.”