Gap is proudly touting its plans to start making clothes in Myanmar. One executive even called it a "historic moment" for the beleaguered Southeast Asian country. The retail giant will be the first American apparel maker to have clothes made in the country since U.S. sanctions were lifted two years ago.
But human rights advocates say, "Not so fast." Myanmar has a miserable track record when it comes to workers, who are frequently underpaid and horribly mistreated. Gap simply wants to get its clothes produced as cheaply as possible, the advocates argue, and it's dressing up the move as global philanthropy.
“The attraction for Gap is obvious: the lowest wages in the region, anemic regulation and weak labor unions," said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization. "This adds up to cheap garments for Gap, at the price of a lot of misery for the workers who will make those garments."
In a press release this weekend, Gap said its decision to make clothes in Myanmar was taken following a "rigorous due diligence process," which included work with U.S. government officials and non-governmental organizations.
Gap spokeswoman Laura Wilkinson told The Huffington Post on Tuesday that the company had done "a tremendous amount" of due diligence, in close consultation with nonprofit labor rights organization Verité and the U.S. Agency for International Development. She added, "As the first American retailer to begin sourcing from Myanmar, we understand the importance of playing a leadership role in creating opportunity for the women in this country and building a sustainable garment industry."
The U.S. imposed an embargo against Myanmar in 2003, severely restricting trade to undercut the country's military government. After military rule ended in 2011, a nominally civilian government was installed, and the Obama administration began lifting sanctions. Since then, a few global companies have set up shop there, including General Electric, MasterCard and Coca-Cola.
But conditions for workers in Myanmar remain dire, according to a report released in November 2013 by a trio of local labor groups. Researchers found that factory workers toiled away "in unsafe, hot, overcrowded facilities." They usually worked 11-hour shifts for six days each week. More than half of the laborers interviewed by investigators said they earned between $25 and $37 per month -- the lowest wages in the region.
The report likens worker conditions in Myanmar to "modern slavery."
"The superiors in factories are strict taskmasters who will not hesitate to abuse verbally, and sometimes physically, those whom they perceive to be doing wrong," the report states. "The conditions inside the factory are often hazardous, hot and dirty. Some interviewees could not even bear talking about their problems as there were simply too many."
According to the report, the women in these factories suffer the most. Many live in constant fear of sexual harassment at work and during their nightly commutes home.
In its press release, Gap said it's working with the U.S. Agency for International Development to help "provide growth and economic opportunities for women" in Myanmar. It's also working with Indiana University and Hewlett-Packard to expand a personal advancement training program for women in that country.
The third biggest clothing retailer on the planet, Gap will be making clothes for its Old Navy and Banana Republic brands in two South Korean-owned factories in Myanmar. Gap declined to tell HuffPost which specific factories and companies it will be working with, citing competitive reasons.
Gap has earned a mostly ethical reputation over the past decade. In 2004, the company launched an auditing system to try to weed out child labor in the facilities it does business with, though problems have still popped up from time to time, threatening Gap's image. The retailer has clothes made in about 40 countries around the world.
In recent years, laborers in Myanmar's industrial districts have risen up to protest their paltry wages. Protests occurred at garment factories nearly every month throughout 2013.
Still, the labor movement remains fragmented. In May, 300 workers were expelled from a garment factory in the Hlaingthayar industrial zone for demanding higher wages. Another factory in the Shwe Pyi Tha industrial zone fired workers after around 180 of them staged a weeklong protest for better treatment and pay.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, Gap sent Verité to conduct a review of potential labor issues in Myanmar. Apple tapped the same group in 2006 to audit the Foxconn factories in China that make the tech giant's glitzy devices.
Following the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed more than 1,100 people in Bangladesh in April 2013, Michael Posner, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor under President Barack Obama, told HuffPost that the world's apparel giants were "running out of road" and were likely to end up in places with dubious human rights records like Myanmar. It appears his warning was right on point.