Burma is expediting a program to wipe out forced labor before a 2015 deadline, Labor Minister Aung Kyi said Thursday, as a global watchdog reviews the country’s compliance with international standards against the notorious practice.
Speaking at the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) annual conference in Geneva, Aung Kyi said that Burma had finalized a “comprehensive plan of action” to end forced labor.
Burma’s powerful military has been one of the biggest culprits behind forced labor, using civilians, including children, to work on roads and bridges and imposing fines or withholding identity cards on those who refused.
But Aung Kyi said President Thein Sein, who heads the nominally civilian government that took over from decades of harsh military rule in March last year, is giving top priority to efforts end forced labor.
“Elimination of forced labor is one of the priorities of our government,” he said.
“We are confident that with the highest-level commitment made by the president we shall reach this goal earlier than the targeted year of 2015.”
Through a new law allowing trade unions effective March, the country has developed a “strong legal basis” for elimination of forced labor, Aung Kyi said.
The ILO, which once described forced labor in Burma as "widespread and systematic,” is currently re-examining the forced labor situation in the country as international sanctions on the country ease following the end of military rule.
How far the reforms have gone are now under review by the Committee on the Application of Standards during the organization's annual meeting, which runs from May 30 to June 14.
Following the review, the ILO could choose to remove its recommendations that member countries impose diplomatic sanctions on Burma.
The decision to carry out the review was made in March following a Memorandum of Understanding between ILO and Burmese labor ministry officials.
An ILO fact-finding mission in early May concluded that despite improvements in labor practices, “many challenges” remained, including the continued incarceration of 10 labor activists and an absence of “genuine, bottom-up people’s participation” and rule of law.
Aung Kyi called on the ILO to lift resolutions against the country, including two recommendations adopted in 1999 and 2000 asking governments cease any relations with Burma that might aid the continuation of forced labor and other practices.
“Any failure to lift [the measures] will dampen hope for the future,” Aung Kyi warned, saying that Burma “expects the ILO to lift the resolutions in whole, as a package, not in a piecemeal approach.”
The country is “in a new era” with political, economic, and social reforms and should “be seen from a new perspective and encouraged,” instead of having sanctions imposed against it, he said.
The EU, U.S., Canada, Australia, and other countries have already eased economic and financial sanctions as a reward for democratic reforms. The U.S. is also moving to resume ambassadorial relations with Burma after a two-decade hiatus.
Federation of Trade Unions
Burma’s Federation of Trade Unions welcomed the ILO’s review of Burma’s compliance with resolutions banning forced labor, but warned that eradicating the problem requires support from every group.
"Our recommendation is that the eradication of forced labor will not be successful if only the government and ILO are working on it. This is concern for the whole country,” Maung Maung, deputy secretary of Burma’s Federation of Trade Unions said in an interview.
“So the whole country has to participate in the eradication of forced labor, including as individuals, as ethnic groups, and as a free press, to monitor the progress," he said.
The federation applauded Burma’s new community governance law that parliament passed in March, replacing an earlier law that allowed forced labor, and lauded orders outlining penalties for the practice, it said in a statement Thursday.
But it said further steps to implement the new laws were needed.
“As long as forced labor and child soldier issues exist in Burma, the country will not be highly regarded, and investment will be further delayed,” Maung Maung said.
Meanwhile, Burmese migrant workers in Thailand met with local officials following protests against working conditions in factories.
Officials from the Thai labor ministry’s district office met Thursday with Burmese migrant worker representatives for three hours to discuss steps to improve the conditions for 80,000 Burmese working in factories in the Mae Sot area.
"We talked not only about labor laws in Mae Sot but other related laws so that grassroots organizations would understand how to approach these issues when dealing with problems on the ground," Burma Action Committee Chairman Moe Gyo said.
Over the past few days, Burmese workers in Mae Sot staged protests demanding to receive the legal minimum wage.
The Thai government's legal minimum wage is 300 baht per day (U.S. $9.50), but workers in Mae Sot area receive only 65 to 120 baht per day (U.S. $2 to $4).
Following the protests, around 10,000 workers from four garment factories were promised wages of 226 baht per day (U.S. $7).
Many of the 2.5 million Burmese migrants in Thailand came illegally to take up low-skilled jobs as domestic servants or in manual labor industries like fisheries and the garment sector. They typically lack health and social security benefits.
The meeting with the Thai officials comes after Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi drew attention to the plight of migrant workers of Maha Chai, outside Bangkok, on her trip to the country last week.
The 66-year-old Nobel laureate, to whom international governments have looked for support for removing economic sanctions, is set to address the ILO on June 14.
Reported by Nyan Win Aung and Moe Kyaw for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.