The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (Oct. 4, 2014)

By William Boot 4 October 2014

Thailand Silent on UN Appeal Over Firms’ Abuse of Burmese Claims

The government of Thailand has failed to respond to the UN Human Rights Council about “persisting allegations” of the abuse of Burmese migrant workers employed in the Thai food-processing industry.

A report on allegations against two Thai firms, Vita Foods and Natural Fruit, was made six months ago by the UN Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, as well as the special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

It alleged that Burmese were duped by labor brokers, had documents such as passports confiscated, were physically abused, underpaid and charged exorbitant fees.

“Some workers from [Burma] have been deceivingly taken to Thailand, not knowing that they would be traveling outside their country; were kept in locked rooms and forced to work at Vita Food Factory to repay labor brokers the imposed debt of 19,000 baht [US$600] for their travel,” said the UN report.

“These practices are said to have resulted in the workers being in debt bondage to Vita Food Factory.”

A letter from the UN group had given the Thai government two months to explain what it is doing “specifically to implement the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in the food industry and other business sectors in Thailand.”

It was made public this week to draw attention to the issue after having received no response from Bangkok since April.

A criminal libel case is in process in Thailand brought by Natural Fruit against a British human rights campaigner, Andy Hall, who has separately made similar allegations against the company. A verdict is due at the end of this month and he could face prison time.

Investment Sought for Luxury Tourist Trains as Burma Railway Rusts

Burma’s state railway company is planning to introduce luxury old steam train journeys through the country just for foreign tourists.

The company is inviting tenders from foreign and domestic firms to bid to become partners to provide the special trains, Myanmar Business Today said.

Bids can be made after Oct. 15, but Burma Railways gave no other timetable for the development, nor did it mention anything about a need to upgrade dilapidated railway tracks.

Luxury train carriages will have to be imported but it may be possible to renovate old steam engines still in Burma, general manager Zaw Phay Sein was quoted saying

“We will initiate the operations after carefully scrutinizing the bidders and choosing the winner,” Zaw Phay Sein said.

Burma has been attracting increasing numbers of overseas tourists, who range from backpackers to well-heeled five-star travelers.

There were two million overseas visitors in 2013, said the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, which is aiming to raise the number to 5 million by the end of 2015.

“The main thing is to be able to provide full service to foreign tourists. Some tourists like to experience luxury train rides,” the joint secretary of the Myanmar Travel Association, Tin Tun Aung, told Myanmar Business Today.

Japan Biggest Winner in Foreign Banks’ Race to Obtain Burma Licenses

Japanese banks have been the most successful among foreign financial institutions winning licenses to operate in Burma.

Three of the nine licenses awarded out of 25 banks that bid have gone to banks from Japan—Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, the Sumitomo-Mitsui Banking Corporation and Mizuho Bank.

The other six licenses went to banks from Australia, Thailand, China, Malaysia and Singapore. Two Singaporean banks secured permits, an official statement said.

Japan has been one of the biggest investors in Burma since the President Thein Sein-led reforms began, observers noted.

“Japan’s substantial investments in their relationship with [Burma] is now paying dividends,” Macquarie University economics professor Sean Turnell told The Myanmar Times.

Ships, Cargo Growth in Rangoon Harbor ‘Requires Law to Curb Pollution’

The number of ships docking in Rangoon port has more than doubled in the past 10 years, rising from 970 in 2004 to 2,334 in the last financial year, the ministry of transport said.

The volume of cargo meanwhile is now eight times greater than 10 years ago, with 610,000 containers moving through the port last year compared with 70,000 a decade ago.

The sharp growth in traffic is now posing a water pollution problem and new legislation is needed to impose tougher controls, a report in the Myanmar Times said.

“An update to the Merchant Shipping Act with clauses to tackle pollution from cargo ships has been sent to the attorney-general ahead of its formal submission to Parliament,” the paper reported.

Proposed changes to the law include heavier fines for water and air pollution and a more developed maritime security framework, it said, quoting Ye Myint, a director in the transport ministry.

Economic Reforms ‘Given Greater Priority’ Than Political Freedom

Economic reform has taken preference over political reform in Burma, said an international human rights group campaigning for the release of what it terms political prisoners still jailed in the country.

The Burma Campaign UK is urging Britain’s foreign secretary to pressure the Naypyidaw government as part of its No Political Prisoner Left Behind campaign.

“Economic reform has been given greater priority than political reforms by the Burmese government, yet still Burma is being ranked as one of the most difficult countries in the world to do business in,” campaign director Mark Farmaner told The Irrawaddy.

He was referring to a recent World Bank global study that ranked Burma as one of the worst places to do business because of numerous bureaucratic and legal obstacles. For example, a company wishing to build a warehouse has to go through 16 application processes which on average takes 159 days.

“The real beneficiaries of economic reforms in Burma are the same business cronies who were dominating the economy before the reforms began. The business cronies have key sectors of the economy stitched up, making it hard for foreign businesses or small and medium size Burmese businesses to compete,” said Farmaner.

Burma Campaign UK is petitioning the British government to pressure Naypyidaw to free Htin Kyaw, a leader of the Movement for Democracy Current Force that campaigns against land grabbing. He was arrested in May for protesting without permission and distributing leaflets that criticized the government, said Farmaner. Htin Kyaw is now serving a nine-year sentence in Insein prison.