H&M hosted a conference in Myanmar Thursday to address industry-wide challenges such as fair living wages and the protection of human rights—three months after the Swedish retailer was called out for employing 14-year-olds in its factories there.
More than 100 industry stakeholders, including suppliers, brands, trade union reps and NGOs, attended the “Fair and Equal” conference in Yangon to share best practices along the supply chain and find solutions together.
Peter Rademaker, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) development partner relations coordinator, delivered a keynote speech, as did Impactt founder and director Rosey Hurst and Anna Gedda, head of sustainability at H&M Group.
But it was during a panel discussion moderated by BBC journalist Yalda Hakim that the issue of improved social dialogue was raised. While panelists highlighted triumphs concerning trade union engagement, democratically elected workers’ reps and collective bargaining processes, they also pointed out that more changes need to be made to cement a sustainable fashion future.
“We are happy to see H&M, as an actor from the private sector, to take a lead in bringing all the relevant actors together to get closer to making functional industrial relations and collective bargaining a reality in the fashion supply chain,” Rademaker said.
According to H&M’s supplier list, the company works with 26 manufacturing factories in Myanmar (previously known as Burma) and 12 processing facilities. Among those suppliers, only one is graded “platinum” and 13 are classified as “gold,” indicating their stance as preferred suppliers making around 60 percent of the company’s products.
However, a book released in August titled “Modeslavar” (or Fashion Slaves) revealed that since 2013, children ages 14 to 17 had worked for more than 12 hours a day in two of H&M’s silver-rated factories: Myanmar Century Liaoyuan Knitted Wear and Myanmar Garment Wedge.
Silver suppliers are factories that H&M allegedly has “long-term oriented and close relations with.” While the retailer said it had taken action with both factories, it defended its employment of teenagers in a statement released to The Guardian.
“When 14- to 18-year-olds are working it is therefore not a case of child labour, according to international labour laws. ILO instead stresses the importance of not excluding this age group from work in Myanmar. H&M does of course not tolerate child labour in any form.”
It’s not the only controversy happening in the country. A report released Dec. 1 by NGO Progressive Voice claimed that Myanmar’s garment workers—90 percent of whom are women—are faced with poor working conditions thanks to inadequate protection from national legislation.
Researchers conducted 199 interviews and found that 95 percent of those surveyed regularly work six days per week and 88 percent regularly work 10 or more hours a day. The report also alleged that 54 percent of workers interviewed face pressure, intimidation and threats of dismissal from their supervisors.
In addition, the nation’s minimum wage—introduced a year ago and still one of the lowest in the world—has purportedly resulted in harsher working conditions for two-thirds of those interviewed, as well as reduced pay for some long-term or skilled workers.
Despite the involvement of H&M and other big brands in leading Myanmar toward a more sustainable fashion future, the Progressive Voices report stressed that the onus is on the government to ensure that workers’ fundamental rights are protected and that working conditions are bettered.