Four years ago, Gap, the clothing giant, boldly announced it would begin garment production in Myanmar. Promising to apply “best practices” on human rights, a company spokesperson called Gap’s production agreement “a historic moment for Myanmar.” Today, the case for Gap’s continued presence in that country is much harder to justify.
Recent reports from the United Nations and non-governmental groups have extensively documented the Myanmar government’s 2017 attacks against members of the Rohingya community in Rakhine State, which the UN has termed crimes against humanity “perpetrated on a massive scale.” Issued last month, the UN report accused the Myanmar military of murder, rape and “genocidal intent.” The UN called for criminal prosecutions of leading government officials.
Some global companies have responded emphatically to the Rohingya atrocities. Facebook, for example, suspended the online accounts of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and a group of other senior officers in Myanmar’s military. Explaining the company’s action, Facebook spokesperson Ruchika Budhraja said: “We believe that their use of Facebook may have fueled ethnic and religious tension in Myanmar.” In Facebook’s case, the company’s product was itself being exploited by government officials and their allies to promote violence against the Rohingya.
The decision facing Gap or other retailers admittedly is less clear-cut. In low wage, labor-intensive industries like apparel, big global brands routinely outsource production to countries where wages are low and government regulations are weak. In the era of fast fashion and a highly competitive marketplace, managing production costs is a key ingredient of success. As wages in China have continued to rise, global brands and retailers have looked for other countries to produce their products cheaply. These countries include Vietnam, Bangladesh, and most recently, Myanmar and Ethiopia.
Wages in these countries generally are low, and workers are compelled to put in long hours, too often in unsafe conditions. Rarely do employees have the right to organize. Despite these and other chronic problems, which warrant greater attention, the globalization of the world’s economy in places like Myanmar typically has had a salutary effect. The hundreds of millions of new jobs that a globalized economy has generated have contributed to a dramatic reduction of global poverty. According to the World Bank, in 1990, 62% of East Asians were living in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day. Today, that number has fallen to less than 5%.
As a leading global clothing retailer, Gap’s decision to enter Myanmar in 2014 was widely seen in this broader economic context. A Gap spokesperson explained at the time: “As the first American retailer to begin sourcing from Myanmar, we understand the importance of playing a leadership role in creating the opportunity for the women in this country and building a sustainable garment industry.”
Coming just one year after the lifting of U.S. human rights sanctions on Myanmar, Gap’s entry into the country also was touted by the U.S. government and others as a signal of international recognition of the country’s movement toward reform. Today, that reform effort has ground to a halt, evidenced again this week by the conviction of two Reuters journalists, who were sentenced to seven years in prison for doing their job. The jailing of these journalists, like the massive abuses against the Rohingya, are a by-product of a government firmly controlled by a military that is impervious to calls for greater civilian control–a centerpiece of any democratic state. As the human rights situation in Myanmar continues to worsen, companies like Gap need to consider whether they should do business in a country dominated by military leaders who stand accused of committing crimes against humanity and genocide against their own people.