Global fashion brands urged to speak out after arrest of factory employee fuels fears that rights are eroded during pandemic
On the evening of 31 March, at the height of the Covid-19 epidemic, Soy Sros, a young Cambodian garment worker, took out her phone and posted a message on Facebook.
The Cambodian garment sector was in freefall with billions of dollars of clothing orders cancelled and factories closing.
In response, the government had issued guidance to panicking factory owners not to sack workers but to send them home with reduced pay. In her post Sros published the factory’s plans to ignore that guidance and dismiss 88 workers, including a pregnant woman.
By calling them out, Sros knew she’d make her employers angry. But she never thought that her post would land her in prison.
On 1 April, her employer, the Hong-Kong based Superl Holdings, which makes luxury handbags for Michael Kors, Jimmy Choo, Kate Spade, Coach and Versace, made a U-turn and told its workers they would keep their jobs. Sros deleted the Facebook post. The following day she was arrested.
At the police station Sros, a single mother of two young children, discovered the company had filed criminal charges, claiming that she had incited social unrest, defamed the factory and spread “fake news”. The Cambodian courts charged her with an additional two criminal charges for provocation, charges that carry prison terms of up to three years.
The treatment of Sros at the hands of the factory and the Cambodian government on the basis of one social media post – as well as the silence of the brands the factory supplies – is striking terror into the Cambodian garment worker community.
It is also adding to fears among labour rights campaigners that Covid-19 is providing cover for an industry-wide suppression of workers’ voices across the apparels industry. Sros, who is also a union representative at the factory, spent 55 days in pre-trial detention.
“My cell was about 10 meters wide and 20 meters long and we were 57 prisoners in there,” she says, in an interview from her home in Cambodia. “I slept with others’ feet touching my head. It was really dirty and the toilet was also inside that cell. Just before my release even more prisoners were added so there were about 70 women but none of the new prisoners were quarantined. I was very worried about Covid-19.”
Cambodia is not the only country where union leaders are facing intimidation.
Several leading European fashion brands have launched investigations into allegations that factories in Myanmar are suppressing union activity under the guise of redundancies due to Covid-19 disruption.
Workers in at least three factories making clothes for Zara, Primark and Mango have told the Guardian that managers are using Covid-19 disruptions as an excuse to dismiss hundreds of union members at different factories across the country.
At the Huabo Times factory in Pathein, supplier to all three brands, unions say that 107 workers were dismissed under the guise of Covid-19 and 26 were members of a union only started a few days earlier. Of the other 81 workers, the majority were openly supportive of the union, according to local workers.
At the Huabo Times factory, a worker called Thitsar told the Guardian the union did not believe the sackings were necessary. “The employers don’t want the union here because they think they will demand workers’ rights”, he said. “Three days after we registered a new union they dismissed the staff. They used the excuse of the impact of Covid-19 and said they had to reduce the workforce but a few weeks later they transferred the workers from another factory into Huabo Times.”
Primark, Zara and Mango say they are committed to ensuring workers can unionise, and are launching investigations and working with their suppliers to resolve any issues.
The factory management at Huabo Times could not be reached for comment.
In Cambodia, media coverage and campaigning by Sros’ union – backed by groups including the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) – has seen Superl Holdings agree to drop the charges. Sros is now back at work but the criminal charges filed by the government currently still stand.
Throughout her detention campaigners from the Clean Clothes Campaignand the WRC called on the luxury brands supplied by her factory to intervene, but they remained silent. None of the brands has responded to the Guardian’s request for comment on the case.
“There is a long history in Cambodia of factory owners using the country’s police and court system to bring complaints of criminal defamation and incitement to silence and intimidate workers,” said Ben Hensler, a lawyer at the WRC.
“In many cases in the past … brands have required the factories to back off. What’s shocking in this case is how apparently unresponsive and inattentive the major luxury brand houses that buy from this factory owner – the owners of Michael Kors, Jimmy Choo, Versace, Kate Spade, and Coach – have been, allowing this worker to be imprisoned at their supplier’s behest for 55 days.”
The Clean Clothes Campaign said it was braced for further cases of union suppression across the apparels industry.
“We’ve already had a surge of reports on union crackdowns and dismissals targeting union activists and we see this as directly linked to the Covid-19 crisis,” said Carin Leffler, a campaigner for the organisation.
“Unless there are strong and unified reactions from the labour movement and companies buying goods from factories where violations take place such actions will undoubtedly increase and undermine workers’ rights.”
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