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In 2002, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) established an outpost in Burma, having repeatedly censured the then military government for the non-observance of international labour laws. A country liaison office became a go-between between Burma and an organisation that had previously accused authorities of perpetuating the use of “widespread and systematic forced labour”.
In 2015, much has changed for Burma’s workers, who last week enjoyed a public holiday and celebrations to mark May Day. Many challenges lie ahead, however, as international investors eye a largely unprotected labour force.
DVB sat down with ILO country liaison officer Steve Marshall to discuss how five years of political and economic reforms have touched Burma’s working class, as well as his hopes for the future normalisation of relations between Burma and the ILO.
Marshall, who took on the role of country liaison officer in 2008, is upbeat about the government’s commitment to changing its ways. He applauded the new government’s efforts on labour regulations. That’s despite many figures remaining from a military junta that routinely rounded up villager and forced them to work on state projects, most infamously on the creation of the new, barren capital of Naypyidaw. The city was completed in 2002, the year Marshall’s ILO liaison office was established in the former capital, Rangoon.
In November this year, Marshall’s liaison office will submit a report to the ILO’s governing body, outlining the progress that Burma has made towards the eradication of systematic forced labour.
“The ILO core activities since 2007 have been about the elimination of the systematic use of forced labour, and that includes the use of underage recruits, but it also includes things like human trafficking for forced labour, forced domestic workers, a range of different activities,” Marshall began.
“In 2012, the government of Myanmar signed an MoU [memorandum of understanding] which essentially committed them to working with us and with broader society towards the elimination of the systematic use of forced labour by 2015.
“Good progress has been made; there is no question that the actual use of the traditional forced labour has reduced. In the context of the military, the military’s responses have been very positive … and the military use of forced labour has reduced. It has, however, not finished.“We don’t have developed collective bargaining; we don’t have developed structures where employer and the employees can sit down and talk to each other.”
“I have to say that the Tatmadaw have been very strong on accountability, and they have been prosecuting military personnel for the use of forced labour. In respect to the civilian authorities and the private sector, we need to see progress in the area of the application of the law,” he continued.
Despite progress on behalf of the military, Marshall was coy on whether the three-year plan to eliminate systematic forced labour has been successful.
“It was my hope that by the end of 2015 we would have clear evidence that this had been achieved,” he said. “One of the difficulties is that forced labour goes hand in hand with the issue of armed conflict … We note that the situation continues to be slightly worse in the border areas than it is in central Myanmar.”
Since coming to power in 2011, Thein Sein’s reformist government has attempted to strengthen the nation’s flimsy labour regulations. Burma had previously relied on largely colonial structures that Marshall suggests were “completely irrelevant for a modern, open society”.
“Frankly the government has moved very quickly and should be given credit for the change, however what we are facing is that this is a huge amount of work,” Marshall said.
The Labour Organisation Law and the Dispute Settlement Law have given workers the right to strike, and the ILO is working with Naypyidaw towards the tabling of a factories act, as well as child labour laws.
Yet despite good legislative intentions, striking workers have been thrown behind bars just this year, as authorities struggle to manage a new culture of civil disobedience. High-profile cases of arrests and police heavy-handedness have come at Shwepyithar and Hlaing Tharyar industrial zones, just outside Rangoon. At the latter site, workers are in the midst of a push for a minimum daily wage of US$5.60, up from a current daily rate of between $1.60 and $3.00.
“I think some of what we are seeing is a transitional problem,” Marshall suggests. “We don’t have developed collective bargaining; we don’t have developed structures where employer and the employees can sit down and talk to each other.”
Marshall acknowledges that when the relationship between workers and employers has broken down, strikers have been unduly dealt with by the law.
“I think there is at the moment a contradiction between two different laws. The labour laws give workers the right to strike and they give employers the right to lock their workers out.
“The Peaceful Assembly law covers other disputes and our understanding is that it covers civil disputes, not labour disputes. So there seems to be a contradiction in the application of the laws, that if workers are on legitimate strike on a labour dispute, then we would understand that probably the Peaceful Assembly Law should not apply. And this was the understanding that we got from the government.”
DVB asked Marshall if the ILO had a message for Burma’s workers in the wake of both strikes and celebrations that came with May Day this year.
“Firstly, it is wonderful that workers in this country are in a position to celebrate May Day,” he responded. “Traditionally there have been problems and the new government is now giving people the freedom to actually celebrate May Day. That is a major achievement. I think we do need to say that the rights have improved, and now it is important for the workers and the employers to realise that they need each other.”