Dozens injured in crackdown on Myanmar garment worker protest

A garment worker wounded after a clash with assailants is seen in a hospital in Yangon, Myanmar October 15, 2018. Picture taken October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Thu Thu Aung

YANGON (Reuters) – Dozens of Myanmar garment workers were injured on Monday after a clash with assailants wielding iron bars outside a Chinese-owned factory in Yangon, witnesses and hospital staff said.

Hundreds of employees of Fu Yuen Garment Co Ltd, which has produced clothes for German supermarket chain Lidl and British fashion brand Joules, according to shipment records published by global trade data website Panjiva, have been striking for weeks demanding the reinstatement of 30 sacked workers.

Myanmar’s textile industry is the country’s top export earner after oil and gas, employing more than 450,000 people and generating more than $2 billion in exports last year.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs in the sector could soon be at risk as the European Union considers whether to reinstate economic sanctions over the Rohingya crisis, potentially stripping the country of tariff-free access to the trading bloc.

A spokesman for Lidl told Reuters the company was liaising with the supplier to investigate the claims. “Once we have obtained all of the facts, we will make an assessment of the situation and take action, if necessary,” he said in an email.

A spokeswoman for Joules said the brand stopped working with the factory in April 2018.

Staff at Fu Yuen Ltd, in Dagon Seikkan township on the outskirts of the commercial capital of Yangon, have been demonstrating since August, after 30 members of a committee that had been campaigning for better conditions for workers were fired.

“They want to crush the committee,” said Hla Ohn Mar, 21, one of the sacked leaders, speaking in the emergency department of Thingangyun hospital, which was crowded with young workers on Monday afternoon.

Twenty-four people were admitted for treatment, the head of the hospital, Dr Aung San Min, told Reuters. “We are treating six as in-patients,” he said.

Workers said about 20 to 30 men in civilian clothing rounded on the crowd of mostly young women gathered outside the factory gates in the early hours of Monday.

“Those guys are gangsters,” said one of the injured workers, 21-year-old Thae Nu Khaing, as trickles of blood ran down her forehead, one leg bandaged in a plaster cast.

“They pushed me and beat my leg with a metal stick,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid – I was just angry and crying.”

Police blamed workers for the violence, saying in a statement a fight had broken out after a small group urged employees still working at the factory to participate in the protest.

“Both groups have an argument and violence happened,” the statement said.

Win Myint, an officer from Dagon Seikkan township station, said officers had been deployed to guard the area but no one had been arrested.

Contacted by Reuters, the township administrator referred questions to Fu Yuen, which could not be reached for comment.