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May 13, 2009 (DVB), A United Nations body has condemned the ongoing use of forced labour by the Burmese government whilst estimating that exploitative labour practices cost workers worldwide upwards of $US20 billion per year.
The report, entitled 'The Cost of Coercion', was published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which includes in its mandate the monitoring of forced labour practices by governments, businesses and traffickers across the world.
It highlighted that lost earnings, or 'opportunity costs', through forced labour practices now reached over $US20 billion.
"This presents a powerful economic argument, as well as a moral imperative, as to why governments must now accord higher priority to these concerns," the report said.
Investigations found that Asia had by far the world's biggest share of forced labourers, and paid particular attention to the Burmese government's forced use of child soldiers and coercion of civilian workers in infrastructural development projects.
"Severe and continued incidence of forced labour imposed by the state and national authorities" in Burma were noted in the report.
As of November 2008, the ILO confirmed a total of 70 cases of forced labour in Burma, all of which were carried out by government or military authorities.
Furthermore, last year's cyclone Nargis, which affected 2.4 million people and damaged over one million acres of farmland, provided new circumstances under which forced labour was being used.
The risks of lodging a complaint of forced labour to the ILO in Burma are significant.
In January this year, labour activist Zaw Htay was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment after he helped farmers in Magwe division file a report to the organization detailing forced labour and land seizures.
Then in March, lawyer Pho Phyu, who was representing both the farmers and Zaw Htay, was sentenced to four years imprisonment under the Unlawful Associations Act.
"Forced labour is the antithesis of decent work", said ILO Director General Juan Somavia.
"It causes untold human suffering and steals from its victims. Modern forced labour can be eradicated, providing there is a sustained commitment by the international community, working together with government, employers, workers and civil society."
Reporting by Francis Wade