ILO losing patience with Myanmar's forced labour

Posted by Dr Abdullah Al Madani under ASEAN Watch on 3 April 2005

Forced or compulsory labour has been used in different countries at different times, especially in modern or early modern history. It took various forms and was used for different purposes.

Historical examples of compulsory labour include the forcible recruitment by the British, French, Belgian and Portuguese colonial administrations in Africa and Asia of farmers, porters and builders.

Another example is the concentration camps system run by Nazi Germany in Europe during the Second World War. Millions of people were exploited or killed in this way because they belonged to cultural or political minorities such as Jews, communists and homosexuals.

One must also add the Soviet Union and other Stalinist states' practices of sending political opponents of the government to forced labour camps.

In the last six decades, however, forced labour has notably ended as a result of continuous efforts by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

ILO has played, since the 1920s, a significant role in curbing forced labour through the adoption of measures compatible with the rights of man referred to in the Charter of the United Nations and enunciated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This first appeared in the Slavery Convention, 1926, which provides that "all necessary measures shall be taken to prevent compulsory or forced labour from developing into conditions analogous to slavery".

Having realised that the problem needs to be spelled out in a clearer form and met with stricter steps, the organisation adopted further proposals aimed at the abolition of certain forms of forced labour.

This culminated in the birth of The Abolition of Forced Labour Convention in 1957, which entered into force in 1959 and has so far been ratified by 151 countries.

According to it, each member of ILO which ratifies the convention "undertakes to suppress and not to make use of any form of forced or compulsory labour" as a means of political coercion or a punishment for holding views ideologically opposed to that of the ruling regime; as a method of mobilising labour for purposes of economic development; as a punishment for having participated in strikes; or as a means of racial, social, national, or religious discrimination.

The term forced labour here is applied to "all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily".

Excluded from the term are all such obligations as military service, normal civic obligations, work exacted as a consequence of a conviction in a court of law, and work exacted in cases of emergencies (wars or earthquakes).

Today, the practice of compulsory labour is prevalent in two or three states in the world, of which Myanmar is the most prominent.

Since early 2000, Myanmar has been under pressure from the ILO to curb forced labour.

In its 88th conference held in Geneva in June 2000, the organisation adopted an unprecedented resolution calling on its 175 member states to impose sanctions on Myanmar and review their relations with it to ensure they were not abetting forced labour.

Immediate response

Yangon's immediate response was a mixture of anger, denial and non-compliance. It accused the ILO of interfering in the country's internal affairs and appeasing pro-democracy activists led by the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In 2002, however, Yangon changed its attitude and sent several messages showing its readiness to cooperate with the ILO.

This culminated in an agreement between the two parties, allowing a representative of the organisation to be stationed in Myanmar to ensure eradication of forced labour and missions of inquiry to visit Myanmar to investigate and help the country develop labour practices in line with international norms.

A year later, the ILO withdrew its sanctions call, but some of its members, such as the United States and Japan, preferred to continue imposing economic sanctions on Myanmar, arguing that the Yangon military regime had no credibility and could not be trusted.

In recent weeks, relations between Yangon and ILO have once again become tense.

In February, an ILO investigation team led by Sir Ninian Stephen, former governor general of Australia, cut short its mission in Myanmar, saying that it had been denied freedom of movement and meetings with top generals in the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

The team also accused Yangon of targeting citizens who had met with ILO's staff.

In the background of this development, the ILO's governing body issued last month a statement saying that "the wait-and-see attitude which has prevailed since 2001 can no longer continue".

The statement added that Yangon had not lived up to its promises to halt forced labour. More important, however, was a warning that the Yangon regime had until June to do something about the pernicious practice of compulsory labour or face sanctions including economic divestment and banned UN agencies and ILO members from doing business with Myanmar.

Should these harsh measures be strictly implemented, the ILO may succeed in triggering change in Myanmar, something that other international and regional bodies have not been able to achieve.

Some observers argue that the SPDC cannot ignore the ILO's sanctions, simply because many businesses, on which the regime depends to survive, will be affected.

Since 1989, the ruling military junta has been in full control of 12 key economic sectors, exploiting them for its own benefits and for reinforcing the capabilities of the Myanmar army, the third largest in Asia with at least 400,000 troops.

These sectors include teak forests, oil and gas, transportation, tourism and banking and insurance services.

Other observers, however, say that the junta cannot stop forced labour because it needs it to run the businesses or accomplish the projects on which the regime's survival and power depend.

Human Rights Watch Asia estimates that at least two million people, including women and children, have been forced to work without pay in civilian or military construction, tourist development projects, shipping and cleaning services and army-owned commercial ventures.

The ILO says that more than 800,000 people may currently be victims of forced labour in Myanmar.

Sources and Relevant Links:

Gulf News ILO losing patience with Myanmar's forced labour 3/4/2005

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