H&M worked with factories in Myanmar where children as young as 14 stitched clothes for more than 12 hours a day, claims an upcoming book about “fast fashion’s seedy underbelly. In Modeslavar—Swedish for “fashion slaves”—authors Moa Kärnstrand and Tobias Andersson spoke to two 15-year-old girls who said they toiled at their respective employers—Myanmar Century Liaoyuan Knitted Wear and Myanmar Garment Wedge near the capital city of Yangon—until 10 p.m. every day, a clear violation of both international labor standards and Myanmar’s own laws, which aren’t very scrupulous in the first place. (At 3,600 kyat, or $3, for an eight-hour day, the Southeast Asian’s minimum wage is among the planet’s lowest.) “They employed anyone who wanted to work,” Zu Zu, who began working at 14, told Kärnstrand and Andersson.
H&M told the Guardian that it has “taken action” with both facilities.
“It is of utmost importance to us that our products are made under good working conditions and with consideration to safety, health, and the environment. We have therefore taken action regarding two suppliers in Myanmar which have had problems with ID-cards and overtime,” the Swedish chain said in a statement.
Confusingly, it also said that “when 14– to 18-year-olds are working it is therefore not a case of child labour, according to international labor laws. [International Labour Organization] instead stresses the importance of not excluding this age group from work in Myanmar.”
The ILO defines a “child” as a person under 18 years of age. It also recommends that the minimum age at which children can start work should not be less than 15, or 13 for light work that doesn’t threaten their wellbeing or interfere with their education or vocational training.
“Indeed, ‘working at age 14’ does not as such necessarily fall within the ILO definition of child labor because ILO Convention 138 [which Myanmar, along with India, Bangladesh, and the United States, has not ratified] allows developing countries to set the minimum working age initially at 14 years,” an ILO spokesperson told Quartz. “However, it would be another thing if children work long hours—especially overtime—or night shifts. Such work by under 18 year old youth is hazardous work, therefore a worst form of child labour as defined by ILO Convention 182.”
With its borders now open after decades of isolation, Myanmar is growing in popularity as a manufacturing destination, particularly for brands that have been bouncing around the globe in pursuit of ever-cheaper labor.
A 2015 report from Australia’s ANZ Bank credited low wages in Myanmar, as well as neighboring Cambodia and Laos, for driving a manufacturing boom that could see Southeast Asia usurping China’s place as the “world’s factory” in 10 to 15 years.
On website, H&M lists 23 suppliers, mostly located in or around Yangon, where its clothes are sewn. As of press time, the tally still included Myanmar Century Liaoyuan Knitted Wear and Myanmar Garment Wedge.
““Any overtime must be in accordance with legislation as well as our own demands, this is particularly important when it comes to the age group 14-18,” H&M told the Guardian. “If a supplier doesn’t live up to our standards or national legislation we—in accordance with our routines—demand that the supplier immediately establishes an action plan, which has been done also in this case. One of the measures concerning the two suppliers in question is improved recruitment routines, which has resulted in improved handling of ID cards.”