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Los Angeles Times

Myanmar Is an Easy Case to Make for Sanctions. Jan 11, 2001. BY ROBERT L. BOROSAGE

The brutal military clique that runs Burma--now called Myanmar--leads the global race to the bottom. Workers have no right to form a union, and independent labor activity is ruthlessly suppressed. In February, the military shelled a village that dared host a trade union event on human rights. Workers making clothes for U.S. companies are paid as little as 8 cents an hour. Myanmar is infamous for its systematic use of forced labor. Each day, men, women and children are rounded up at the point of a bayonet, forcibly held in camps and put to work on road and other construction and commercial projects, made to carry military supplies, or even to serve as human land mine detonators in combat zones.

Now Myanmar's indefensible practices pose a test to the Clinton administration and the industrial world. For the first time in its history, the International Labor Organization, or ILO, has called on member governments to "review their relations with Myanmar" and to act "to ensure that such relations do not perpetuate the system of forced or compulsory labor in that country." The ILO is urging members to isolate Myanmar, after independent investigations have confirmed what the dictatorship denies: "widespread and systematic" use of forced labor.

The ILO's action calls the bluff of the United States, its European allies and the minstrel chorus that celebrates corporate globalization. For years, they have fended off efforts to enforce basic worker rights in trade accords, in World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies and at the World Trade Organization. As protests grew--50,000 in Seattle against the WTO, 80,000 in Nice against the European Union--the defenders looked for cover. The WTO isn't the proper forum, they argued, because the ILO is charged with concern for labor rights. Skeptics noted that the ILO was the perfect dodge: all bark and no bite, with a tripartite membership of business, labor and government that virtually ensured paralysis. The ILO has no power to enforce sanctions on its own. But now the ILO has called on its members to sanction a country for wanton violation of basic worker rights.

The U.S. has led the global denunciation of the Myanmar junta's human-rights practices. In May 1997, President Clinton barred all new investment in Myanmar. He recently rewarded the Medal of Freedom to Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of Myanmar whom the military deposed a decade ago and now has under virtual house arrest.

But the ILO declaration calls on nations to review any practice that might support the dictatorship. The AFL-CIO, human rights organizations, as well as conservative Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Caroline and liberal Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa, among others, have called on the president to ban immediately all imports from Myanmar.

The U.S. is one of Myanmar's largest--and its fastest-growing--consumer markets. U.S. apparel companies increased their imports from there by a staggering 130% in the first nine months of 2000. Members of the junta jointly own many of the factories exporting to the U.S., so U.S. consumers are unwittingly supporting one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world. Sweatshop investigator Charles Kernaghan reports in a study that leading U.S. retailers, including Kenneth Cole, Williams Sonoma, Dress Barn and others, are importing from Myanmar sweatshops. Last year, the U.S. military imported more than $138,290 in clothing made there. A ban on U.S. apparel imports would cut off about one-fourth of the regime's foreign exchange earnings. Now in his final days in office, Clinton is being pressed to put muscle behind his own words and support the ILO by suspending all imports from Myanmar. Led by Tom Niles, president of the U.S. Council for International Business, the business lobby has fought against any action, demanding impossible preconditions, including a preposterous "cost-benefit test" for each sanction considered (presumably balancing the cost of workers' lives against the benefit of cheaper T-shirts).

The most recent annual report of Human Rights Watch concluded that the "current system to regulate global commerce leaves little or no room for human rights and other social values," even as the global economy is "generating human rights problems of global dimension." Myanmar now offers what should be a rather easy test case.

If the president suspends imports to Myanmar--and his successor upholds the suspension--then the ILO will have succeeded in triggering significant sanctions against a regime for violations of core worker rights. If the president ducks, the global community will have demonstrated that there is no constraint, no global standard of basic rights that will be enforced on corporate behavior. If forced labor is not beyond the pale, then what is?

Robert L. Borosage Is a Founder of the Campaign for America's Future and Co-editor of the Forthcoming Book, "The Next Agenda" (Westview Press)