Violence Erupts Over Protests At Myanmar Garment Factory. A Presage Of Things To Come?

After eight weeks of persistent protest, workers at Fu Yuen Garment Co Ltd have allegedly been the target of “hired thugs” in an incident that drew riot police to the scene. The employees of the Chinese owned company have been demonstrating outside the factory since August 20th, when 30 workers were laid off, according to ElevenMyanmar. Protests have carried on after some demands have been met; however, the company refused to rehire those who were fired.  Suddenly on the morning  of October 15, about 20 to 30 plain clothes civilians assaulted the protesters.

The assault led to an escalation of violence, with rocks and sticks being launched at the factory before two dozen riot police were called in to restrain the crowd, as Reuters reports. The initial violence led to the injury of 28 people, six of whom are in a serious condition and only one of which is not female. Regrettably, these workers’ struggle may be presage of an impending squeeze due to the European Union’s consideration of revoking tariff-free access for the garment industry.

One of the demonstrators, Thae Nu Kaing, 21, told Reuters that “those guys are gangsters… “They pushed me and beat my leg with a metal stick. I wasn’t afraid, I was just angry and crying.” Meanwhile, the official police statement omitted mention of the assailants, claiming that the protesters had instead tried to involve the people who were currently working at the factory in the demonstration via their Facebook page: “Both groups have an argument and violence happened.” While the leadership at Fu Yuen is yet to address the issue, German supermarket chain Lidl, which much of this garment supply is targeted at, said they were inquiring with factory management which “will be the basis for an internal assessment and which could lead to measures being taken.”

The incident serves as a timely reminder of the consequences of global production chains sourcing labour costs from less economically developed markets. The garment industry is one which is emerging in Myanmar and as such leaves workers in a particularly vulnerable position. The industry was worth US$2 billion of exports for Myanmar last year and of the 400 000 people involved in the industry, approximately four fifths are women, per Reuters. The current protesters are part of a group that organised a union two years ago, with the objective of pushing for better working conditions. As they now try to act upon the newly acquired protections, they have become the target of violence. The Myanmar government is expected to shoulder some of the blame, as they have yet to step in and address the complaints made to the labour department, as protesters have claimed. The police attempt to obscure the nature of the recent incident also raises questions about the robustness of worker protection.

Unfortunately for the besieged workers, this may be a presage of further hardships to come. With the EU weighing potential sanctions against Myanmar’s economy due to the forceful eviction of the Rohingya minority, factories may be tempted to cut costs further at the expense of the staff. Even those who were lucky enough to be able to retain their positions are unlikely to see their conditions improve. This goes to the heart of the moral quandary of sanction-based enforcement of human rights; while those in power commit or abet the atrocities, it is the relatively powerless who may suffer from the consequences of those actions the most.

Ethan Beringen