ILO: Current Govt ‘Reluctant Partners’ in Fight Against Forced Labor

By Nyein Nyein 12 February 2016

Forced labor has continued across Burma at the hands of the military, despite the signing of an agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to eliminate the practice by 2015, according to the ILO’s in-country liaison officer.

The outgoing government, led by President Thein Sein, signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN agency in 2012, promising to ultimately end all forms of forced labor over the next three years.

According to the ILO liaison officer in Burma, Piyamal Pichaiwongse, forced labor practices vary by region. In central Burma’s dry zone, the incidents are mostly related to the harvesting of crops. Pichaiwongse explained that cases of this type often occur in Magwe, Mandalay and Sagaing divisions, as well as in Arakan, Chin and Shan states.

“That adds more difficulty to the farmers’ already hard lives,” she told The Irrawaddy this week, adding that if the farmers do not grow the crops that the military and the authorities demand, they are often evicted from their land as punishment. In many cases, farmers return to their fields, but they are not allowed to register the land as theirs at the local administration departments without the military’s approval.

“The major stakeholder in forced labor is the military, because they are the main perpetrators,” said Pichaiwongse, a Thai national and former lawyer who has worked in Burma for decades. Another responsible party, she explained, is the General Administration Department (GAD), which operates local governments in every state, division and township.

“The government agreed to stop forced labor when we shared reports of cases that reached our complaints mechanism… but when farmers return to their farmland, the military says ‘no, you cannot return, it is our land [now],’” she said.

In northern and eastern Burma, forced labor is frequently documented as portering for military camps. In western Burma, it commonly involves forced army recruitment and the construction of border fences.

Since the establishment of the ILO’s Supplementary Understanding Complaints Mechanism in 2007, the organization has been receiving reports from people who are being subjected to forced labor across the country, but few of the cases are able to receive appropriate legal redress.

After forming a Ministry of Labor-backed working group on the issue, the ILO has collaborated with government institutions to take action to end forced labor. The group is comprised of representatives from the military, the GAD, the foreign affairs department, the attorney general’s office, the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Agriculture.

But the working group lacks a willingness to resolve the problem, Pichaiwongse explained, as the current government is backed by the military.

“They are our partners, but they are reluctant,” she said.

The ILO is hopeful that under a National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government, it will be possible to finally eliminate forced labor, as local NLD members have been working closely with the organization for years on land issues and ways of combating the practice.

“What I would expect to happen is that the new minister and deputy minister within the Ministry of Labor will lead the fight in a much more positive fashion, because [the NLD] understands the problem,” Pichaiwongse said.

Burma initially ratified the ILO’s forced labor convention in 1955, pledging to abolish the practice, but the number of cases escalated under Burma’s 50-year military regime.