In 2019, garments were Myanmar’s leading export goods, making up almost 40% of total exports. Employing around 500 000 primarily female workers, the garment industry was key to the country’s stability and development. At the same time, disputes over FOA, low wages and poor working conditions were among the main reasons for strikes and disruptions to production in the sector. They quickly escalated into conflicts and were the primary subject of complaints to the state dispute resolution mechanism, which was considered ineffective due to lacking enforcement capacity or allegations of lacking neutrality.
To help prevent and address industrial disputes as a key factor for stable and sustainable production, factories producing for ACT member brands and IndustriALL-affiliated Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) negotiated and agreed upon the Myanmar Freedom of Association Guideline (FOA Guideline) (ACT, 2019).
“Having a FOA Guideline and dispute resolution mechanism can allow for [the] organisation of workers in a trade union, which is a reliable partner for social dialogue at [the] factory level.”
Khaing Zar Aung, President of IWFM (DIEH, 2021)
With facilitation and technical support from the ILO, ACT co-ordinated the negotiation of the FOA Guideline, an agreement between employers and trade unions that reflected the interests of both parties while being in line with and drawing on international labour standards. As such, the FAO Guideline clarified key rights and responsibilities for workers and employers in terms of FOA on the basis of both national and international law.
Notably, the FOA Guideline also spelt out that “any reference to Myanmar law reflected in this agreement is understood to mean to the extent that the law is in compliance with international labour standards (ILS). When Myanmar law is not in compliance with ILS, the parties shall be guided by ILS and the interpretation given to them by the ILO Supervisory Mechanism”.
In 2019, Paul Zhubo, Spokesperson of the Employer Working Group, highlighted,
“Throughout the negotiation meetings, we have been able to build trust and understanding between each other. The Guideline is a framework that every factory can use to have a clear and predictable way of engaging with trade unions.”
Paul Zhubo, Spokesperson of the Employer Working Group (ACT, 2019)
To ensure a level playing field among all their business partners, ACT member brands adopted measures to ensure compliance with the FOA Guideline and the associated dispute resolution mechanism as a business requirement. Non-compliance by a supplier ultimately resulted in the termination of the business relationship with the ACT member brands. As such, the FOA Guideline became a binding standard, accounting for an estimated 80% of the Myanmar garment export industry at the time.