Reports

June, 22 2000 |  Share

U.S. Companies Increase Use of Sweatshops in Burma

 

Despite Brutal Dictatorship and International Sanctions,
U.S. Companies Increase their Ties to Burmese Military Dictators and Drug Lords

U.S. government sanctions imposed in May 1997 bar new U.S. investments in Burma, yet major U.S. companies are rapidly increasing their ties to the brutal Burmese military dictatorship.
  • In 1998 U.S. apparel imports from Burma grew by 49%.
  • In 1999, apparel import growth was 45%.
  • In just the first quarter of 2000, imports soared upward by 85%.
  • Between 1995 and 1999, apparel imports were up 272%.
  • This year U.S. companies will import more than $340 million from Burma
  • Apparel constitutes 82% of total U.S. imports from Burma.

U.S. companies and brand-name labels cooperating with the Burmese regime include:

  • Adidas
  • Kohl's
  • Warner Bros
  • Bugle Boy
  • Jordache
  • Nautica

And, Perry Ellis, Karl Kani, Kasper ASL, Macy's, Sports Authority, Williams-Sonoma, Montgomery Ward, Dress Barn, Filene's Conway, Burlington Coat Factory and others. Wal-Mart's Canadian division also imports from Burma, however its totals are not included in U.S. import figures.

The Burmese dictatorship is the pre-Mandela South Africa of our time.

Burma, renamed Myanmar by the current government, has for years been criticized as a military dictatorship. The people of Burma have no rights. Efforts to speak out against the dictatorship are crushed. Torture and rape are commonly used by the military as a tool of social control. Forced labor is a daily occurrence and children are regularly forced to act as porters for the military. Wages are as low as 4 cents an hour for a 45-hour workweek or just $8 a month. Companies producing there count on the regime's military power to crush any labor uprisings or efforts to speak out against the dictatorship. There are more than 1000 political prisoners suffering in Burmese jails.

The Burmese people have called for an international boycott of products from Burma.

This year the International Labor Organization-a tripartite agency of the United Nations that represents business, labor and government equally-suspended Burma's voting rights as a sanction for its continued practice of forced labor. And in an action unprecedented in the ILO's 80-year history, the organization censured Burma in early June 2000 for forced labor practices and encouraged national governments to apply economic sanctions, including trade and investment restrictions on Burma.

The U.S. government imposed sanctions preventing new U.S. investments in Burma in 1997. Clearly the U.S. companies that have increased their ties to the Burmese regime and rapidly increasing imports from the regime are violating the spirit, if not the letter of the law. Canada, the European Union and other countries also have imposed sanctions on Burma.

 

 
 
U.S. Apparel Imports from Burma 1999-2000

Source: World Trade Atlas 1998, 1999.
* Year 2000 figure represents expected value.

 

A 1998 Commission of Inquiry by the International Labor Organization issued a report revealing "a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation of large sections of the population inhabiting Myanmar by the Government, military and other public officers. It is a story of gross denial of human rights to which the people of Myanmar have been subjected particularly since 1988 and from which they find no escape except fleeing from the country."

Joint Ventures with the Military and Drug Lords

Foreign companies are not allowed to operate independently in Burma, but are required to be in joint ventures with the military government. Apparel and textile firms in Burma are part-owned and controlled by the Burmese military government and the military itself. A portion of money earned from garment exports to the U.S. goes directly to the regime and is used to purchase weapons to repress the people of Burma.

"As of 1996, the number of textile and garment factories in Burma that were producing chiefly for foreign markets was said by sources close to the industry to have increased to about thirty. At least sixteen were wholly or partly foreign-owned, mostly by Hong Kong or South Korean firms. Of these sixteen, most were joint ventures either with Myanmar Textiles Industries, a [Government of Burma] parastatal firm, or with Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH), a military holding company"" (American Embassy Rangoon. Country Commercial Guide: Burma, FY1998.)

 


 

A significant portion of the increase in apparel imports from Burma comes from new production orders.

A selection of new production lines follow:

  • Imports of travel bags and sports bags increased from zero bags in 1997 to 1,003,492 bags in 1998 to 2,131,413 bags in 1999.
  • Imports of non-lace bras increased from zero dozen in 1997 to 46,508 dozen in 1998 to 81,779 dozen in 1999.
  • Imports of women's briefs and panties increased from zero dozen in 1997 to 18,658 dozen in 1998 to 136,950 dozen in 1999.
  • Imports of knitted or crocheted jumpers increased from zero dozen in 1997 to 10,858 dozen in 1998 to 14,250 dozen in 1999.
  • Imports of knitted or crocheted women's shorts increased from zero dozen in 1997 to 4,002 dozen in 1998 to 16,257 dozen in 1999.
  • Imports of girls cotton tank tops increased from zero dozen in 1997 to 6,767 dozen in 1998 to 17,995 dozen in 1999.
  • Imports of shop towels jumped from zero towels in 1997 and 1998 to 1,977,777 towels in 1999.

A 1998 Commission of Inquiry by the International Labor Organization issued a report revealing "a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation of large sections of the population inhabiting Myanmar by the Government, military and other public officers. It is a story of gross denial of human rights to which the people of Myanmar have been subjected particularly since 1988 and from which they find no escape except fleeing from the country."

 

Background

"Myanmar's military junta lead comfortable lives in sumptuous ex-colonial compounds"" (Economist Intelligence Unit 10/18/99)

The military dictatorship took power in 1988 in one of the decade's most brutal crackdowns on nonviolent protesters. On August 8, 1988, troops were ordered to open fire on unarmed demonstrators. Several thousand civilians were killed and thousands more injured in the ensuing blood bath.

Since 1988 the regime has prohibited free speech, the freedom of assembly and the right to organize. Independent trade unions are illegal. The Burmese people have no rights.

The pro-democracy movement inside Burma has called for a boycott movement against exports from Burma, in the hopes of isolating the military dictatorship and forcing the generals to cede power to the people of Burma. Mainstream international institutions — the World Bank, the International Labor Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations — have refused to support the Burmese dictatorship and condemned the brutality. Moreover, the U.S. government, along with Canada, the European Union and others, has instituted sanctions against Burma.

Today the military receives more than 40% of Burma's estimated government spending. Over the last 10 years the government has imported more than $2 billion in weapons. And the armed forces keep growing — expanding from 170,000 in 1988 to 434,800 by mid-1998.

More than half of the Burmese economy is tied to the heroin trade. Overall, Burma is the world's second-largest producer of opium and a producer of large quantities of amphetamines. It's estimated that the value of opiate exports may be equal to that of legal exports.

Efforts to speak out against the dictatorship are crushed
  • People caught speaking against the regime in public can be sent to jail for up to 20 years
  • Possession of a phone or fax machine without a license is punishable up to 3 years in jail
  • Possession of a modern computer is punishable up to 15 years in jail
  • Even most simple Internet services are forbidden.
Wal-Mart Tied to Drug Lords

Between December 1999 and May 2000, Wal-Mart Canada imported from Burma garments with a customs value of $1.2 million in 11 different shipments, all through the port in Vancouver, British Columbia. This added up to a total of 132,706 pounds of garments. Shipping documents published by the Journal of Commerce link Wal-Mart Canada directly to three contractors inside Burma: Myanmar Euroworld International, Ltd., Crocodile Trading Company, Ltd. and Ever Green (Myanmar) Overseas Enterprise Group Company, Ltd. Ever Green is a manufacturer owned by one of the most the notorious Burmese drug traffickers, Lo Hsing-han.

Wal-Mart Canada is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Wal-Mart.

Well over 1000 political prisoners endure hideous conditions in Burmese jails

Political prisoners suffer both physical and mental torture — beatings, burnings, shackling of legs and arms, electric shocks, suffocation, stabbing, deprivation of light and sleep, denial of medicine, food, exercise and water for washing.

The Burma Human Rights Yearbook 1997-98 documents the regime's use of cruel and unusual torture techniques including:

""forcing victims to stand in unusual and uncomfortable positions for extended periods of time; including 'riding the motorcycle' which entails standing with arms outstretched and legs bent and the 'helicopter' in which the victim is suspended by the wrists or feet from a ceiling fixture and then spun around"employing the 'iron road' in which iron or bamboo rods are rolled up and down the shins until the skin is lacerated; ordering solitary confinement with extremely small and unsanitary cells for prolonged periods""

Forced labor is a daily occurrence in Burma

Survivors of the military's brutal sweeps are often forced to work for the military against their will. Women are taken as porters and forced to carry arms and other gear for military officers. This is know as "forced portering". They have to carry up to 150 pounds of weapons all day. But that isn't the end of it. At night women are raped. They call this "double duty".

A 1998 report by the International Labor Organization states, "Porters, including women, are often sent ahead in particularly dangerous situations as in suspected minefields, and many are killed or injured this way. Porters are rarely given medical treatment of any kind...and some sick or injured are left behind in the jungle."

Forced labor is so common that in 1995 it was estimated to have a market value equivalent to close to 4% of the Gross Domestic Product.

People who want to work for multinational companies in Burma must be registered with a "union". But independent trade unions aren't ever allowed in Burma. So the "unions" in Burma are company unions. Except in Burma, they are run by the military generals. The union is used by the regime a political weapon against the Burmese democracy movement. "Members" are forced to demonstrate against pro-democracy leaders.

"Under current circumstances, it is not
possible to do business in Myanmar
without directly supporting the military
government and its pervasive
violations of human rights
."

— Statement from Levi Strause & Co.
after the company pulled production
out of Burma

 

    

 

 

 

 

Systematic persecution of ethnic minorities

"Torture and rape of ethnic minority members are commonplace." (Economist Intelligence Unit 11/11/99)

The regime has made concerted and conscious effort to wipe out opposition among the country's numerous ethnic minority populations.

The junta engages in a 'scorched earth' policy in the border region where many of the minority populations remain, burning entire villages straight to the ground. Inhabitants are forced to move to so-called 'relocation centers'. Those attempting to return to tend their crops can be shot on sight. Those who survive the 'relocation' can be forced into portering for the military, beaten, tortured, or deprived of food, water, rest and medical treatment. Others are just killed.

The number of refugees fleeing the Burmese dictatorship is staggering, but refugees find little opportunity:

There are around 300,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand, 21,000 in Bangladesh and 20,00 in China and India. Inside Burma well over one million people have been displaced. < P>

Burmese women migrant workers inside Thailand live in refugee camps and are lured into the growing number of farms and sweatshops in the border regions. Conditions in these factories are particularly horrendous because if workers threaten to unionize or even speak up for their rights, they can be sent back to Burma. This would be a death sentence.

Burmese girls deported from Thailand in a crackdown on undocumented labor return to work as prostitutes. Faced with desperate conditions, they are particularly vulnerable. Young prostitutes aged 15-18 earn between $12.50 and $20 for a session, and more if they agree not to use a condom. Health surveys show that eight in ten of them are likely contract the HIV virus.

"According to in-country sources, 16 per cent of the Burmese garment industry's profits go to purchase arms used to maintain tight control over the population. In fact, the defense ministry's directorate of procurement is part-owner of the garment industry."

— Ken Georgetti, President, Canadian Labor Congress
Education? Not in Burma

The regime has shuttered all the universities for much of the time since 1988. Three out of every ten five-year-olds fail to begin infant school and only 40% of the rest finish even primary school.

The regime is tightening the screws on the pro-democracy movement inside Burma:

"The junta's use of informers, together with its control and censorship of all media, make it almost impossible to organize widespread clandestine political activity"
(Economist Intelligence Unit 11/11/99)

Pro-democracy forces inside Burma are organized primarily by the National League for Democracy (NLD). Led by 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD won the majority of parliament seats in the last election (1990). But the regime never accepted the results.

Aung San Suu Kyi spent 1989-1995 under house arrest. To this day she is forced to ask permission to leave her home to meet with both local and international press. Her phone line is regularly cut. The few individuals allowed to meet with her are required to register their visits with Military Intelligence.

The pace and scope of political arrests and persecution has increased rapidly since 1995 when the National League for Democracy withdrew from the military-controlled National Convention which was to draft a new constitution.

The regime has cracked down on weekend gatherings that used to draw pro-democracy forces to the house of Aung San Suu Kyi.

For party members, most normal political activities are severely restricted. They and their families are subject to severe harassment including imprisonment and torture and are prevented from traveling and speaking in public.

Party meetings are allowed only very seldomly and party materials-leaflets, books, posters, etc.-are illegal.

Is one U.S. apparel executive worth 71,000 workers in Burma?

The average pay for the top 40 U.S. apparel executives was $2.1 million in 1999, which was up 11.4% from the year before despite a 18.9% decline in profits. The CEO pay averaged 6.2% of total company earnings.

For example, Kasper A.S.L., which produces in Burma, paid CEO Arthure Levine $2,019,868 in 1999. A worker in Burma earning 4 cents an hour, or $8 a month, or $96 a year would have to work 21,038 years to earn what Levine earned just lasst year. Other companies also producing in Burma such as Nautica and Perry Ellis paid their executives $1,666,907 and $707,101 respectively.

 

 

Even foreigners can't get away with criticizing the regime:

In fear that outsiders would support the pro-democracy movement during planned protests in September 1999, the Burmese embassy in Thailand refused to issue tourist visas for 3 weeks to prevent protesters or journalists from entering the country.

That same month, a few outsiders did get into Burma. But they weren't allowed to protest for long. UK citizen James Maudsley was given a 17 year jail term for handing out pro-democracy leaflets. Another UK citizen, Rachel Goldwyn, was given a 7 year sentence just for singing a pro-democracy song. She was released only after an international support campaign. Maudsley is still in jail.

The regime continues to rape the natural environment of Burma:

Myanmar has about 75% of the world's remaining teak but clear cutting of valuable hardwoods is rapidly wiping out rain forests, destroying the habitat of ethnic minorities and killing off endangered animals

The Yadana natural gas pipeline project, led by America's UNOCAL and France's TOTAL oil companies along with the Burmese regime has proceeded without adequate research on its environmental impact. The pipeline is being laid along forests that are home to many rare species, all of which will be destroyed.

It's almost impossible to know exactly where the goods we buy are produced. The companies refuse to tell the public even the names and addresses of the factories that produce the goods we buy. There is no comprehensive public record of what companies continue to produce in Burma. The list of companies in this report was produced through hours of field research by staff and volunteers of the National Labor Committee, the Canadian Friends of Burma and the Free Burma Coalition, Rock Island Catholic Worker, and others.

Until the companies recognize and respect our Right to Know where an under what conditions our goods are produced, information like this will always be hard to come by.

Methodology: The data in this report comes from the U.S. Commerce Department, Bureau of the Census and Office of Textiles and Apparel, the World Trade Atlas (1998, 1999), the Port Import Export Reporting Service database published by the Journal of Commerce (1999, 2000), Country Commercial Guide: Burma published by the American Embassy Rangoon FY1998 and from a series of informal surveys of products sold in more than a dozen major retail outlets in the U.S.

The National Labor Committee has purchased a sampling of products made in Burma:

  • Adidas over-the-shoulder sports bag sold in Sports Authority for $39.99
  • Girls' tank tops under the labels "energie" and "Derek Heart" sold for $10 in Kohl's department store.
  • Karl Kani long sleeve men's shirt sold in Macy's for $34.00
  • Perry Ellis and Weather Proof Garment Company men's jackets sold in Burlington Coat Factory for $39.98 and $54.00 respectively.
  • Children's winter jackets sold in Bradlee's under the labels Pistachio ($37.99) and IZZI's KIDS ($29.99).
  • A plethora of girl's and women's tops sold in Conways discount chain under the labels One Step Up, Kids for Kids, Red Paint, Club House-made in Italy and Star Ride.
  • Important research collaboration and information was provided by the Free Burma Coalition, Trillium Asset Management in Boston, the Burma Project, Canadian Friends of Burma, New Economy Communications, and others.

 


 

SAMPLE LETTER

Dear ____________:

Currently your company is producing and/or selling products manufactured in Burma (renamed Myanmar by the current military regime).

Burma is one of the most vicious military dictatorships in the world and is clearly no place for any company concerned about human rights and individual freedoms to be doing business.

I urge you to immediately sever you contract in Burma and end your association with the military regime that runs the country with an iron fist.

The people of Burma have no rights. Efforts to speak out against the dictatorship are crushed. Torture and rape are commonly used by the military as a tool of social control. Forced labor is a daily occurrence and children are regularly forced to act as porters for the military. Wages are as low as 4 cents an hour for a 45-hour workweek or just $8 a month. Companies producing there count on the regime's military power to crush any labor uprisings or efforts to speak out against the dictatorship.

As I am sure you are aware, the United States government in 1997 enacted sanctions against new investment in Burma given the regime's track record of violating the most fundamental human and worker rights. In an unprecedented action this year, the International Labor Organization—a tripartite agency of the United Nations that represents business, labor and government equally—suspended Burma's voting rights as and censured the country for its continued practice of forced labor.

You have a tremendous opportunity to take a public stand reaffirming human rights and dignity. The people of Burma have asked for your support. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

COMPANY CONTACT INFROMATION

Larry Montgomery, CEO
Kohl's Corporation
N56 W17000 Ridgewood Drive
Menomenee Falls, WI 53051

Bugle Boy Industries
2900 Madera Road
Simi Valley, CA 93065
(805) 582-1010

Karl Kani
500 Molino Suite 215
Los Angeles, CA 90013
213-626-6076

Nautica Enterprises
40 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
(212) 541-5990

Mr. Barry Meyer, CEO
Warner Bros.
4000 Warner Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91522
Main Telephone: (818) 954.6000

Mr. Steve Winn
Adidas
9605 S.W. Nimbus Ave.
Beaverton, OR 97008
Phone: 800-289-2724
Fax: 503-972-2450

 


 

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