RANGOON — The International Labor Organization (ILO) announced that it will lift its remaining restrictions on Burma, in a move that Burma’s government hopes will boost trade and increase foreign investment as the country’s economy continues to open after decades of isolation.
The restrictions, which were imposed by the UN agency in 2000, included a recommendation that its 185 member states limit relations with Burma to avoid perpetuating forced labor in the country, a major problem under the former military regime, which ceded power to a nominally civilian government in 2011.
ILO delegates temporarily suspended this restriction and lifted some others last year, but went a step further this week by voting to totally lift all remaining restrictions at their annual International Labor Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.
“The resolution adopted by the conference recognizes the progress made in Myanmar and lifts all ILO restrictions on Myanmar,” the UN agency, a labor rights watchdog which includes representatives from governments, employers and labor organizations, said in a statement on Tuesday.
The ILO imposed restrictions on Burma in 1999 and 2000, after Burma’s junta failed to follow recommendations to bring its legislation in line with the ILO’s Forced Labor Convention, which calls for an end to forced labor at the hands of authorities, particularly the military.
The restrictions, along with EU and US trade sanctions against Burma, isolated the impoverished country for many years.
Burma’s government on Tuesday welcomed the ILO’s move to lift remaining restrictions, saying it would help accelerate trade and investment.
“The remaining restrictions have been lifted because Myanmar carried out pragmatic measures, including legislation, for eliminating forced labor in the country, and has achieved good results,” Burma’s Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security said in a statement.
“The lifting of all remaining restrictions on Myanmar will help the country ensure it boosts international trading, foreign investment and job opportunities for its citizens.”
A Burmese delegation led by the deputy minister for labor is attending the conference in Geneva, which began on June 5 and closes on Thursday.
At the ILO conference last year, Burma’s labor minister said he was expediting a program to eliminate forced labor by 2015, and the ILO lifted restrictions on technical cooperation to reinstate Burma as a full member state, while also suspending some of the restrictions imposed in 1999 and 2000.
The decision to lift the remaining ILO restrictions this year follows a string of rewards from the international community for Burma’s reforms under President Thein Sein. The European Union in April permanently lifted all economic sanctions against Burma, with the exception of an arms embargo, while the United States has also suspended sanctions on investment and trade.
Last week, the European Union readmitted Burma to the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) scheme, allowing the country to benefit from lower duties on exports. The EU’s decision was a result of ILO reports last year that Burma had made necessary improvements to stop the use of forced labor, according to a statement by Ireland, which holds the EU presidency.
However, rights activists say forced labor remains a major problem in many of Burma’s border states, where clashes continue to break out between ethnic armed groups and the government’s army despite ceasefire agreements.
In southeast Burma’s Karen State, forced labor has been imposed by the Border Guard Force (BGF), which is controlled by the government’s army, rights groups say. Earlier this year, residents in two villages in Papun District were forced to gather building materials for BGF soldiers, serve as messengers, perform sentry duties and complete domestic duties in the army camp, according to a report released in April by the Karen Human Rights Group.
In east Burma’s Shan State, rights groups also cite continuing forced labor at the hands of government soldiers and ethnic minority militias. In April, after clashes in March between both sides despite a ceasefire, hundreds of internally displaced persons were reluctant to leave temporary settlement camps because they feared forced labor, according to a report by Radio Free Asia.
In the past year, reports of forced labor have also come out of Kachin State, Chin State, Arakan State and other border states.
The ILO acknowledges that despite progress, forced labor continues in Burma, and has urged its member states to provide financial support to improve working conditions in the country. At the conference in Geneva this week, it pledged to continue working with Burma’s government toward the goal of eliminating all forms of forced labor by 2015, and to monitor working conditions as foreign companies rush in to take advantage of what is widely seen as one of the world’s last untapped markets.
The ILO’s work in Burma for more than a decade has focused on fighting forced labor and the recruitment of child soldiers, but the organization is now tackling a broader scope of issues including education and ensuring employees understand proper procedures for carrying out a strike.