102nd International Labour Conference

Selection Committee Discussion on Myanmar: speech by Mr. Luc Cortebeeck, Chairperson of the Workers'Group

Statement | Geneva | 10 June 2013
Chairperson, Dear colleagues,

The ILO can take pride in the important role it has played and continues to play in Myanmar. Because of the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on Forced Labour in 1997 and the sustained follow-up by this institution and its constituents the government has taken many important steps towards eliminating the scourge of forced labour from the country. We welcome these steps to comply with the Commission’s recommendations. For these reasons, the Selection Committee last year lifted the 1999 Resolution to allow for the provision of much-needed technical cooperation and assistance, as well as to allow the government to participate in ILO meetings, symposia and seminars. Further, the Selection Committee agreed that Para 1(b) of the 2000 Resolution would be suspended for 1 year, with discussions scheduled at the November 2012 and March 2013 Governing Body meetings to review progress made by the government and to make recommendations to consider all relevant issues concerning Myanmar at the 2013 Conference.

Last March, the Governing Body decided to suspend at this Conference the Special Sitting on Myanmar under Point 1(a) of the 2000 Resolution. This year we will have to decide whether to further suspend this measure or discontinue it. The other key question before us is whether the 1 year suspension of Para 1(b), which allows ILO Members to “take appropriate measures”, should be made permanent. The Workers’ Group agrees that the time has come to do so. In so doing, however, we note that the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations have yet to be fully implemented and we urge the government to do so without delay.

Today, the Villages Act and the Towns Act have been amended, which brings the definition of forced labour into line with ILO Convention 29, though the Constitution remains to be amended. As already pointed out by our Group, the penal sanctions for civilian perpetrators (1-year maximum) cannot be considered dissuasive and therefore not effective to prevent the use of forced labour. We urge the Government to amend the law in order to adopt strong and dissuasive sanctions against the use of forced labour.

Forced labour continues, however, with credible reports of various forms of unpaid forced labour conscripted primarily by the military in 2012, including in Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karen and Shan States. This includes, for example, portering, road construction, road-repair and military camp construction, fence building and road clearing and food production for troops. We note the Director General’s Report that forced labour is most prevalent in areas where the military is engaged in ongoing conflicts, such as Arakkan State and Kachin State. We agree that forced labour is particularly concentrated in these conflict zones but would note compelling evidence of forced labour in 2013 in the Karen state as well.

Impunity remains high for those who exact forced labour. Penal sanctions for the exaction of forced or compulsory labour have not been strictly enforced against military or civilians perpetrators. The Director General’s Report notes the prosecution of 329 persons in response to complaints filed under the ILO complaints mechanism - 6 under Penal Code and 323 under the military regulations. Those imprisoned for this crime have risen to 11 persons in recent months. These steps are welcome. However, the Commission of Inquiry had importantly stated that, and I quote: “The power to impose compulsory labour will not cease to be taken for granted unless those used to exercising it are actually brought to face criminal responsibility.” We are concerned that most penalties have been administrative in nature and that undoubtedly many persons who have committed or ordered the exaction of forced labour remain unpunished.

Last year, the ILO and the government adopted a joint strategy to ensure that the government fully complied with the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendations by the end of 2015. Since the joint strategy was adopted, the report explains that the government and the ILO have engaged in numerous awareness raising activities for government officials, the military, journalists and others and that brochures have been widely disseminated and their contents broadcast. We note too that the application of the law is being monitored. These efforts are welcome. However, we recall that the joint strategy goes far beyond awareness-raising activities. There is little if any discussion of any of the other many activities that are supposed to be taken under the joint strategy. The Workers’ Group would like to receive additional information in this regard.

We are keenly interested, for example, as to whether the Office has made progress on Section 4(B): Forced Labour Directly or Indirectly Associated with Energy Projects. Earlier this year, the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), a state-owned enterprise with close ties to the former military regime, announced that it is accepting foreign bids for 18 onshore oil blocks. The lack of the rule of law and high levels of public corruption raise very serious concerns about these bids. The ILO will need to work to help develop a strong, independent public inspection vital for ensuring in general respect for workers’ rights and, in particular, that forced labour does not occur during onshore oil and gas exploration and project development. The role of unions in this sector will also be critical in guarding against the use of forced labour. Further, as to Section 4(K): Forced Labour Imposed through Land Acquisition/Confiscation Activity, we take note of the warning of UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Thomas Ojeda, who remarked that and I quote: “Given the expected wave of privatizations and the increase in foreign investment, along with accelerated economic development, there is likely to be an increase in land confiscations, development-induced displacement and other violations of economic, social and cultural rights.” The ILO must get in front of these issues and ensure that forced labour, and indeed other labours rights violations, is not associated with these and other projects.

We expect that all social partners and civil society organizations will play an active role in implementing that plan. We are disappointed that social partners, particularly trade unions, have had little role in the implementation and oversight of the joint strategy. We also recall that many of the activities in the joint strategy were contingent on finding funds and hope that those funds have in fact been secured so that the full program may be implemented on time. We would appreciate additional information from the Office in this regard.

We recall that paragraph 5 of the 2012 Resolution called for a report on the impact on foreign investment on decent working conditions in Myanmar. We underscore the importance of such reporting. As trade and investment sanctions in place for many years are now removed, there has been a dramatic increase in interest in investment opportunities in Myanmar. Indeed, these days, it can be difficult to find a hotel room in Rangoon, as they are full with trade and investment missions. It is not a secret why the country is now so attractive. Myanmar is now seen as the world’s next low-cost manufacturing hub, with workers earning among the lowest wages in all of Asia. It could soon be competing with low-cost countries like Bangladesh, a long favourite of garment producers. It is also rich in natural resources, such as minerals and the oil already mentioned. There is no question that Myanmar needs investment; however, that investment must be responsible if it is to contribute to broadly-shared economic development. Unfortunately, the requested “report” of the Liaison Office on this important issue consisted of only 3 paragraphs in the report to the November 2012 Governing Body. We urge the ILO to be proactive on this issue and provide detailed reporting that will help all of us to ensure that investment contributes to decent work in Myanmar. We also ask that the ILO use its convening role to bring together unions and employers in Myanmar to discuss at the national and sectoral levels the establishment of mature industrial relations.

We appreciate the reporting on the project on freedom of association and indeed the many accomplishments of this project over the last year. We emphasize that raising awareness about Conventions 87 and 98 should be a major component of this project. We note that concerns remain in respect to employer harassment of union leaders and workers undertaking organizing. We are deeply concerned and indeed have learned of many such cases, including recently at the Taw Win Lace Factory, where 7 union executives were dismissed for their trade union activity. Still, 4 of the 7 have not been reinstated. We are disappointed that efforts to strengthen the law to give the dispute settlement law the tools necessary to prevent and to punish anti-union discrimination have not yet been successful.

We also note the issues highlighted around the registration process, particularly federations and confederations. In this regard we regret that the Federation of Trade Unions – Myanmar (FTUM) has still not been registered. This is in part a consequence of laws that restrict the right to organize and register at different levels. We urge the Government to amend the law to put it in conformity with Convention No. 87, since no meaningful social dialogue will be possible without strong representation of workers at the national level.

Further ILO technical assistance with regard to freedom of association is also necessary. We would like to see a continuation of union development efforts, and that FTUM leadership and members are involved and are a key part of the trade union development efforts in Myanmar.

In more general terms, we would note that the legislation with regard to freedom of association and collective bargaining, in our view, while a marked improvement over past situation - in which no framework for the registration and operation of trade unions existed - still erects many obstacles to the full exercise of fundamental labour rights. These shortfalls must be addressed with urgency and we request the government to begin a process to review and revise the legislation consistent with the fundamental conventions and the recommendations of the ILO Supervisory Mechanism. Ensuring the functioning of a strong and independent judiciary is also an absolute priority.

Finally, with regard to the proposed points for decision in paragraph 51, we think that the measures in Paragraphs 1 (b) can be discontinued.

In respect of Paragraph 52 we fully support the need for the Governing Body to keep the situation in Myanmar under review until the full elimination of the practice of forced or compulsory labour in the country has been achieved. Provided this is acceptable by all, our Group would be in a position to agree to discontinue Paragraph 1 (a) of the 2000 resolution. Regular monitoring by the Governing Body is especially critical if the special sitting at the Conference Committee on the Application of Standards is discontinued, as the ILO will need a mechanism to oversee the implementation of the joint strategy and to act should there be any setbacks. In this regard, we underscore the importance of having detailed information provided by the Liaison Office to the Governing Body on the points I have already raised. The reports to date are not sufficiently detailed or complete to make an informed assessment on the implementation of the joint strategy. The review of the situation in Myanmar mentioned under point d of the draft resolution should take place annually at the March sessions of the Governing Body.

Our Group also supports the suggestion that members and international organizations support the efforts of the ILO and the Government to eliminate forced labour in Myanmar and to further social justice in the country. On this point, we underscore again the importance of obtaining resources for the freedom of association project, which is critical to the furtherance of social justice. I would also like to stress that social justice cannot exist without a proper legal framework and we would therefore urge that a process for the review of the labour laws be initiated to bring them into conformity with the relevant conventions, particularly 87 and 98. Finally, as raised in the previous resolution, more work needs to be done with regard to the impact of foreign direct investment on decent working conditions. Unfortunately, there was no real follow up on this issue over the last year.

I request that these observations be reflected in the draft of the proposed resolution in Annex I of the Provisional Record 2-2. This does not pre-judge of some additional amendments that our Group might convey to the Office after today’s session.

Thank you chair for your consideration of these items.