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Forced labour in Burma tests ILO's will to uphold global standards: Union and human rights activists say firm rhetoric is not matched by action, report Frances Williams and Edward Alden. Mar 27, 2001
When the International Labour Organisation issued its unprecedented call last November for member states to consider sanctions against Burma over its use of forced labour, the US government responded swiftly and seriously.
Meetings were held at the highest level, trade unions and business groups weighed in on opposite sides of the issue, and the administration considered a range of options. Despite strong pressure, however, the US refrained from any action.
On January 18, two days before leaving office, Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state, announced that the US would hold off from further sanctions, citing the resumed dialogue between the Burmese military regime and Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader.
In fact, a report prepared for a discussion in Geneva this week by the ILO's 56-strong governing body shows that no country has imposed additional sanctions since the ILO urged members to "review their relations" with Burma to "ensure that such relations do not perpetuate the system of forced or compulsory labour in that country".
Some ILO members, including the US and the European Union, said they were prepared to take further measures if forced labour continued. Washington specifically mentioned trade sanctions. But Russia, China, Japan and other Asian nations are strongly opposed to any action to ostracise Burma.
The lack of action will fuel long-standing criticisms that the ILO, despite its strong words, remains incapable of mustering sustained pressure on countries.
For human rights groups and trade unions, Burma's flagrant use of forced labour is seen as a crucial test of the ILO's credibility as the guardian of core labour standards. In the US, the Bush administration has been looking to a stronger ILO in order to deflect demands that labour rights be enforced through the use of sanctions under the World Trade Organisation.
"International trade unions are looking to the WTO because of the ILO's failure to deliver the 'killer punch' in cases of persistent abuse of core labour standards," says Bill Jordan, general secretary of the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which has consistently pressed for a social clause in WTO trade agreements and supports a blanket trade and investment ban against Burma.
"There couldn't be a better test case than the gross and widespread use of forced labour by Burma. The ILO needs to show that it has the will and the means to end abuse of labour standards - that's its job," he said.
Both the ICFTU and New York-based Human Rights Watch say they have evidence that forced labour is continuing despite a Burmese government decree issued last October to abolish the practice except in public emergencies.
The ICFTU, in a 300-page report issued last month, documents recent cases in which children as young as 10 have been forced to carry munitions and military supplies. Many cases also "involve torture, rape, murder and violence", the report says. One source with close ties to the Burmese opposition says: "All of the things the ILO has been complaining about have intensified."
The US finds itself in an awkward position. While Washington has banned US investment in Burma and suspended its eligibility for special trade preferences, the US has still become the biggest market for its exports. The value of US imports of Burmese clothing rose from Dollars 185m (Pounds 130m) in 1999 to more than Dollars 400m last year. Since the US first imposed sanctions in May 1997, clothing imports are up almost 400 per cent. Tom Harkin, a US senator, has introduced legislation that would cut off all imports from Burma. But US options for additional sanctions are limited.
Burma is a WTO member, and the US would have difficulty imposing restrictions on its clothing exports without violating WTO rules. "They've de facto made it impossible," said Art Gundersheim, the director of international trade with the largest US textile workers' union.
It remains unclear whether ILO members have the will to make that threat credible. Juan Somavia, the ILO's director-general, who likes to stress his role as a consensus builder, shows clear signs of discomfort when asked about Burma. "We want to eliminate forced labour in Myanmar, not impose sanctions," he said this month, citing as progress the fact that the Burmese government no longer denies the existence of forced labour.
But Mr Jordan of ICFTU says those governments that oppose action on labour standards in the WTO must give the ILO the tools to do the job instead. Otherwise, he says, trade unions and others "will continue to demand that the WTO be given this role - because it has the sanctions".