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BURMA: ILO Gets Tough on Forced Labour

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Nov 16 2006 (IPS) - The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has hardened its stance towards the use of forced labour in Burma, and decided to turn to the International Court of Justice because of the regime’s reluctance to cooperate in eradicating the practice.

The ILO governing body declared that workers, employers and the majority of governments – the three pillars of the multilateral institution’s system of tripartite government – “expressed great frustration that the Myanmar (Burma) authorities had not been able to agree on a mechanism to deal with complaints of forced labour.”

For the past decade, the ILO has been accusing Burma’s military junta, which calls itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), of using forced labour, including women and children.

Burma is accused of violating ILO Convention 29 on forced or compulsory labour, which was ratified by that nation in 1955.

In 1996, the International Labour Conference set up a survey commission, which reported two years later that forced labour was “widespread and systematic” in Burma.

Since then, the government has fluctuated in its willingness to negotiate with the ILO, but without yielding on the underlying question of the eradication of forced labour.

In June, the delegates from Burma accepted the possibility of adopting a mechanism to deal with complaints of forced labour.

As evidence of goodwill, the government announced in July that well-known labour activist and lawyer Aye Myint would be released, and also dropped legal cases in the central district of Aunglan against victims of forced labour who had filed complaints.

But the brief lull came to an abrupt end in October, when authorities in Burma rejected three requirements outlined by an ILO mission to Rangoon, including the ILO’s request for free, confidential access to whistle-blowers on forced labour.

The ILO governing body’s response was harsh. On Wednesday it stated that “The Myanmar authorities should, as a matter of utmost urgency and in good faith, conclude with the Office an agreement on a mechanism to deal with complaints of forced labour.”

In addition, the governing body said a specific item would be placed on the agenda of its March 2007 session, to enable it to move on legal options, which it said would include requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The governing body also said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia could make available to the ICJ prosecutor all relevant ILO documentation on the issue of forced labour in Burma.

Furthermore, Somavia will also be able to “ensure that these developments are appropriately brought to the attention of the United Nations Security Council when it considers the situation in Myanmar, which is now on its formal agenda,” it added.

“The ILO has been committed to dialogue with the Myanmar authorities to solve the problem but for some time now the message hasn’t been getting through to the Myanmar leadership – maybe it’s stuck on the desk of the Labour Minister,” Somavia said in a statement.

“Enough is enough,” said Roy Trotman, the vice chair and worker spokesman on the governing body, justifying the stiffening of the ILO stance on forced labour in Burma.

Trotman urged the governing body to undertake preparations to allow further action in case the steps to be taken during the March 2007 session are unsuccessful.

During the governing body’s meeting this week, which ends Friday, the trade unionist from Barbados said these mechanisms should “demonstrate to Myanmar that we are serious about” the issue.

The vice chair and employer spokesman on the governing body, Daniel Funes de Rioja of Argentina, agreed that “we cannot wait any longer.”

He said employers are aware that measures must be adopted to guarantee the credibility of the ILO.

On the part of the governments, the representatives of the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand backed the governing body decision.

Matti Salmenperä, director of Finland’s labour ministry, said “The EU is deeply concerned that the Burma/Myanmar authorities once again have not been willing to engage in real cooperation.”

“Obstacles to granting the liaison officer freedom of movement and contacts and not admitting the importance of sufficient staff appear to be just another excuse not to seriously engage in negotiations with the ILO,” he added.

James Carter, deputy under secretary for international affairs in the U.S. Department of Labour, said “The practice of forced labour continues, particularly by the military, which does so with impunity.”

He mentioned “new and credible reports of the military imposing forced labour on villages to implement a new national plan to cultivate castor oil” to produce biodiesel.

Carter also pointed out that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest, “her illegitimate detention having been extended in May this year.”

However, representatives of other countries, especially from Asia, called for cooperation and dialogue to overcome the differences between the ILO and Burma.

A delegate from Russia said his country would not accept an eventual advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice as binding, and said the court did not have jurisdiction over the case of forced labour in Burma.

Funes de Rioja said the question of abuses in Burma was not a debate “between friends or enemies,” and did not justify “regional or other kinds of solidarity.” The central question is for the ILO to put the legal mechanisms in effect, he stressed.

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