Ending EU perks to hurt human rights
MYANMAR garment manufacturers are facing a nexus point in the development of their industry. I do not envy the European Commission. Their decision on whether to withdraw Myanmar’s trade benefits with the European Union will have ramifications, positive or negative, for years to come. Indeed, the history of manufacturing in Myanmar and the trajectory of industrial development in this country will be significantly impacted. Simply put, the stakes are high.
It is important to recall that the EU has provided Myanmar with a “trade benefit”. The EU is not proposing sanctions. That is a misconception. The commission is investigating, as they are bound to do under the conditions of the ‘Everything But Arms’ (EBA) trade agreement, whether human rights in Myanmar have improved or worsened during the period that EBA privileges were in effect. It is wrong to point fingers and blame the EU for doing what they are supposed to do according to the terms of the agreement.
The events in Rakhine State are the main reason for the investigation, and one can strongly argue in favour of EBA withdrawal on that basis. If that were all that ought to be considered, the decision would be a simple one. However, one can also make a strong argument that social and human capital development in the country more broadly has been trending in a very positive direction, largely as a consequence of European and other international engagement with the country.
The Myanmar garment industry has been a frequent target of media exposés. One could believe from the stories that conditions are atrocious, but is not what we generally observe. Our project, SMART Myanmar, has worked with hundreds of garment factories since 2013, and we have observed a sweeping and broadly positive shift toward better safety and environmental standards, better pay for workers, an improved legal framework and, generally, the beginnings of what could soon become one of the most socially and environmentally responsible garment industries in the world. This positive shift has been fuelled and made possible by the requirements, support and behaviour of European buyers who have come to Myanmar because of the EBA trade benefit.
Such positive developments are in stark contrast to the Myanmar garment industry that United States trade sanctions in 2003 left in their wake. At that time, the garment industry had been booming for a decade with exports flowing to the US. The US imposed total sanctions on Myanmar, nearly killing the industry. Rather than producing any positive outcome, the results of the US sanctions were undeniably negative. The military government maintained control of the country. Myanmar’s international isolation cut off the surviving garment factories from a global trend of improving standards, and conditions worsened. Child labour, forced labour, abysmal fire safety standards – by 2013, the industry was in a sorry state, preserved only by the ability to limp along on the back of exports to Japan and Korea, but unable to comply with the stricter social and environmental standards required by European and North American buyers.
Based on this, we can envision the impact that EBA withdrawal would have on the industry and country: worsening social and environmental standards as exports to the EU decline, and unemployment, probably in the tens of thousands, as factories close and others cut production. There would be much less economic development in Myanmar’s smaller cities, such as Pathein, Kyaukse, and Hpa-an. Unemployed migrant workers would have little choice but to retreat to poverty in their villages or seek jobs in Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere.
In 2003, there was a significant uptick in sex trafficking of unemployed garment workers, an almost inevitable and tragic outcome when thousands of impoverished young women with little education and few skills end up on the street with no other way to support themselves and their families.
The Myanmar garment industry is growing in a very positive direction. The general quality of jobs in the industry are getting better with each passing year, factories are safer and more comfortable than they were five years ago. Laws on overtime, maternity pay, and social security are more consistently enforced and followed by the industry. Freedom of association and social dialogue are still relatively weak, but trade unions and employer organisations are slowly discovering a path toward constructive industry dialogue. There is still a need for many improvements, but the overall trajectory of the industry – broadly speaking – is positive. This has all been made possible by the EBA trade benefit, which is pushing forward precisely the sort of positive social and economic development it was designed to achieve.
The EU is under no obligation to preserve EBA. They would be within their rights to remove it. Nevertheless, removing the trade benefit will do no one any good and will surely result in great human suffering. Rural families would suffer and, rather than contribute to the improvement of human rights in Myanmar, it would actually detract from the development of civil society. I appreciate the commission’s desire to act in response to the horrendous things that have occurred in Rakhine and the backsliding on press freedom, but I feel this is not the right way. International engagement with the Myanmar people is needed, as is more development of the country’s civil society and economy.