GENEVA (ILO News) - In spite of the Government's formal statements to the contrary, forced labour remains widespread in Myanmar, says Juan Somavia, Director-General of the International Labour Office (ILO) in a report 1 dispatched to members of the ILO Governing Body on 21 May and made public today.
The report "regarding measures which the Government of Myanmar has taken to comply" with its obligations under international law, states that none of the recommendations made last year by an ILO Commission of Inquiry "have yet been followed".
Although barred by the authorities from entering Myanmar, the Commission of Inquiry, appointed under the Constitution of the 174 member-State ILO, interviewed more than 250 eye-witnesses in neighbouring countries and collected more than 6000 pages of documents. In a report 2 issued in August 1998, it concluded that "the obligation to suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour is violated in Myanmar in national law as well as in actual practice in a widespread and systematic manner, with total disregard for the human dignity, safety and health and basic needs of the people".
Pointing to the Government's "flagrant and persistent failure to comply" with the ILO's Forced Labour Convention (No. 29) to which Myanmar (then Burma) adhered in 1955, the Commission called on the country to: a) bring its laws, in particular its Village and Towns Acts, into line with the Forced Labour Convention, as repeatedly promised by the Government over the past 30 years; b) ensure that, in actual practice, no more forced labour be imposed by the authorities, in particular the military; and c) enforce strictly the penalties which may be imposed for the exaction of forced or compulsory labour in conformity with Article 25 of the Convention.
Nearly one year later, little has changed, according to the ILO. An Order was issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 14 May 1999 directing local authorities "not to exercise the powers conferred on them" under the Village and Towns Acts but, underlines the latest report, "by 18 May 1999, neither had the Village Act nor the Town Act been amended, as requested in the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry, nor had any draft law proposed or under consideration for that purpose been brought to the attention of the ILO".
Furthermore, notes the report, "all information on actual practice (...)" provided by member States, workers' and employers' organizations and other reliable sources, points to "the continued widespread use of forced labour by the authorities, in particular the military". Thousands of villagers continue to perform forced labour as porters, messengers or as labourers on roads, railways, bridges and farms. Among the evidence cited are hundreds of written, official orders emanating from the army or civil administration. "As pointed out by the ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions)," says the report, "all these orders are quasi-identical in shape, style and contents to the hundreds of forced labour orders which the Commission of Inquiry had examined and found to be authentic".
Forced labour has both direct and indirect social and economic consequences. As quoted in the report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has "received information that, in order to reduce disruptions in adults' income-earning activities, families have resorted to sending children to perform labour in place of adult members of the families".
Finally, says the report, "no action seems to have been taken (...) to punish those exacting forced labour". None of the evidence submitted by the Government of the Union of Myanmar suggests that alleged instances of forced labour had led to "thorough investigations, prosecutions and adequate punishment of those found guilty" as stipulated under the terms of the Forced Labour Convention (No. 29).
1 Report of the Director-General to the members of the Governing Body on Measures taken by the Government of Myanmar following the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry established to examine its observance of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29). International Labour Office, Geneva, 21 May 1999.
2 Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma). Report of the Commission of Inquiry appointed under Article 26 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organization to examine the observance by Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29). Geneva, 2 July 1998.