On the morning of 4 May, Zar Zar Tun, a Burmese garment worker, led a strike at a factory in the city of Yangon. Within 24 hours she was an inmate at Myanmar’s notorious Insein prison.
Zar Zar Tun, 31, was arrested outside the Blue Diamond bag factory in Dagon Seikkan, an industrial district of Yangon, where she and more than 100 other garment workers had been protesting over pay, working conditions and the right to strike.
This followed a number of strikes in the region in April that saw hundreds of workers, torn between the need to work and the fear of catching Covid-19, demand that employers help minimise their exposure to the virus and continue to pay them despite looming factory closures.
When police broke up the 4 May protest they arrested Zar Zar Tun and a second garment worker, as well as four members of the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions. All were charged with blocking a public area, gathering people together during a pandemic, and – because they camped out at the factory before the protest – violating a night-time curfew introduced in April to curb coronavirus.
Zar Zar Tun and her colleague Lay Lay Mar were sent to Insein where they spent 21 days chained together in a crowded prison hall. She said that when they were unshackled, “we had to empty buckets of faeces and urine, and sweep and mop the floor”.
Zar Zar Tun spent three months in Insein. At home, her family struggled without her. Her wages had supported her elderly parents as well as her two-year-old daughter, and while she was imprisoned her husband lost his construction job.
“My child was separated from me so it was very traumatic,” she said. “Sometimes my husband had to stay with our baby, and he also had to come to my hearings, visit me at the prison and send food packages. He had to take days off from work and his boss did not like it.”
The factory closed in June but was operated by Rongson (Myanmar) Co Ltd, which continues to supply companies such as US bag brand Vera Bradley. A manager at the Rongson factory, where the two women were employed as garment workers, said that the 100 workers who lost their jobs earlier this year were not sacked just because they went on strike. He told the Guardian that the strikers also broke laws in place to protect both workers and managers.
A spokesperson for Vera Bradley said that while there was no official contract with Blue Diamond, it was leveraging its relationship with Rongson to find a fair way forward for the workers. If none was reached, the company would sever its relationship with Rongson.
Labour rights campaigners say that what happened to Zar Zar Tun and Lay Lay Mar is a chilling insight into the way that Covid-19 laws are being used to silence garment workers in Myanmar and across the world. Since March, thousands of unionised garment workers have been fired across Myanmar, most of them women.
“The rise of authoritarianism globally, and its manifestation in worsening employer and government hostility toward labour activism, was threatening the rights of garment workers before the advent of Covid-19,” said Ben Hensler, general counsel at the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC). “But the pandemic has intensified attacks on workers, while also providing the perpetrators with political cover.”
In March, another garment worker at a different factory, Hayman Aung, posted a question on a Facebook forum about compassionate leave. The 21-year-old didn’t name the factory where she worked and where she was the secretary of a new trade union, but someone who replied did.
A month later Hayman Aung was fired for serious misconduct. She was then told to report to the police station or face arrest for “defaming” her workplace. Forced to hand over her phone to the police, delete her Facebook account and find two bail guarantors, she is still waiting to hear whether a trial will take place.
“You have employers constantly using criminal law against union organisers, often for frivolous complaints,” said Bent Gehrt, field director at the WRC. “Hayman Aung made an innocent request for information. This cannot reasonably be called defamation yet now she faces prison.”
Brands and governments have an urgent responsibility to ensure Covid-19 doesn’t affect the already precarious lives of garment workers but the reality on the ground is very different, said Dominique Muller of Labour Behind the Label.
“This is a global pattern,” she said. “Economies and exports are slowing down and many governments don’t want workers to disrupt the industry at this difficult time. They would rather throw workers to the wolves when they speak out about their rights.”