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BURMA: No End to Forced Labour

by Gustavo Capdevila Inter Press Service News Agency
June 15th, 2007

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) expressed profound concern about the persistence of forced labour in Burma, while it is closely monitoring the implementation of a mechanism for victims to file complaints, which was recently agreed with the Southeast Asian country's governing junta.

But the ILO's assessment of the case confirms that forced labour remains widespread in Myanmar (the name given to the country by the military government), and in fact continues to expand, ILO executive director Kari Tapiola told IPS.

None of the recommendations of a survey commission sent by the ILO have been put into practice yet, the international agency reported.

Forced labour is widely used in Burma, especially by the army, says a report by the ILO Committee on the Application of Standards presented to the International Labour Conference, which ended its annual three-week session Friday.

In 1989, the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International was the first to denounce that tens of thousands of people in Burma were subjected to forced labour.

But nearly 10 years later, in 1998, "when I came here, Myanmar still denied that there was a problem of forced labour," ILO director general Juan Somavía told IPS.

The military regime eventually acknowledged that it did exist. In response, the ILO tripartite (government, labour and business) governing mechanism adopted supplementary provisions to pressure the military junta in Rangoon.

Somavía said that when the junta allowed the ILO to open an office in Burma to monitor forced labour, complaints from victims immediately began to come in.

But two years ago, the situation became much more difficult after a military coup was carried out within the regime, and a different faction of officers took power, he said.

The ILO Governing Body reported last November that every effort had been made to resolve the problem, and that it had decided to present the issue for United Nations Security Council scrutiny.

At that time it was clear that the military government had no intention of continuing to work with the ILO, said Somavía.

The ILO and the junta also disagree over the military punishment meted out to those who dare bring complaints of forced labour. The ILO has considered the possibility of requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

"On that very specific issue we now actually have an agreement," said Tapiola, referring to the complaint mechanism agreed on Feb. 26. "So of course now we are looking at this agreement, at how it works. But the option of bringing a matter for an advisory opinion at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is always there."

"The question (of the ICJ) was because the government has one interpretation and we had another one and we said the people should not be punished for complaining about forced labour," said Tapiola.

Somavía said the government reacted to the pressure from the ILO Governing Body and agreed to once again open the doors to allow the ILO to receive complaints of forced labour from whistleblowers. That began to occur in March, he added.

The director general said the ILO attempted to show the democratic forces in Myanmar that the agency is doing what it can.

"The relationship between the ILO and Myanmar is one where we are now on a trial basis implementing an agreement where we receive complaints on the use of forced labour and then we pass them on if they seem to be serious complaints, for the government to follow up on," said Tapiola.

"The government has followed up on a couple of cases and people have even been punished to the extent that some people have been put in prison. But this is a recent phenomenon and we have to see how it works," he added.

The ILO has a convention on forced labour (No. 29) dating back to 1930, and another on the abolition of the practice (No. 105) from 1957, and defines forced labour as "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."

In a 2005 report, the ILO estimated that at that time, there were at least 12.3 million victims of forced labour around the world. Of that total, 9.8 million are exploited by private agents, more than 2.4 million have been trafficked, and 2.5 million are forced to work by the state or by rebel military groups.

The ILO reported that forced labour was found on every continent, in virtually every country, and in every kind of economy.

Particularly stubborn are "traditional" forms of forced labour, like chattel slavery and debt bondage, said the report.

Another form, bonded labour, is widespread among indigenous people in some parts of Latin America, while slavery-related practices persist in areas of Asia. In Europe and North America, meanwhile, increasing numbers of women and children fall victim to trafficking for the purpose of sexual or labour exploitation, added the ILO. 

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