Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be a guest of honor on Thursday at the annual conference of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva, one day after the UN agency voted in favor of restoring full membership rights to Burma.
However, forced labor is still a long way from being eradicated in the country and workers’ rights have yet to permeate to the factory floor and farm fields, the ILO admits.
The ILO said it believes that sufficient progress is being made under the reforming presidency of Thein Sein to justify welcoming Burma back into the fold of more than 180 member countries. Reinstating Burma as a full member of the ILO follows an undertaking by the Burmese government to eliminate forced labor by 2015. Burma has faced restrictions on its membership for the past 13 years because of repeated failure to respond to the ILO’s calls for basic labor rights.
The ILO followed the lead of the European Union and the United States in only suspending the restrictions imposed on the Burmese authorities in 1999 for one year, pending further progress on reforms. These restrictions included urging other member countries to limit their relations with Burma.
“The  Conference requested that urgent attention be given to technical cooperation priorities in Myanmar [Burma],” said an ILO statement on June 13. “Priorities already established are the effective and full realization of freedom of association as well as the elimination of forced labour.
“The government of Myanmar and the ILO have agreed on a joint strategy for eliminating forced labour. The government acknowledges the need for immediate action on this strategy with a view of implementing it before the declared target date of 2015,” the ILO said.
A number of NGO rights campaigners have in recent weeks cited reports of continuing cases of forced labor linked to the army in Kachin, Karen and Arakan states.
“There should be no illusions that a decades-long reliance on forced labour by the Burma army is going to end any time soon,” Human Rights Watch’s David Mathieson said in May.
As well as inviting Suu Kyi, the Switzerland-based ILO has also been hosting a Burmese workers’ leader, an employer and the Labor Minister Aung Kyi, each of whom gave different interpretations of the progress being made to revive Burma’s economy equitably.
“There are lots of workers who do not have rights back in Burma,” employee Thant Zin Oo told the ILO. “Even in the factory where I work a lot of workers do not know what their rights are.” Thant Zin Oo recently formed the Basic Labor Organisation at the Aung Tile Factory in Rangoon.
“What the workers need the most right now in Burma is an increase in the minimum salary,” he said. “There have been a lot of changes but for me what it wrong is that there are issues of forced labor and child soldiers.”
Khine Khine Nwe, the secretary of the Basic Employers Organization in the garment industry, said employers need the international community to “trust in us” and to permanently lift sanctions.
“After so many sanctions we lost access to the market. Who will come and invest with sanctions suspended only for one year? They will wait, so I don’t think there will be much changing if there is still some [sanctions threat] there,” Khine Khine Nwe complained to the ILO. “We are the business prisoners [of Burma]. Inside our own country they barred us to do business with this place and that. We don’t have our choice of work or our choice of buyers, so where’s the justice for us?”
Labor Minister Aung Kyi said the Burmese government’s relations with the ILO are good now compared with the “neglect” of the last 20 years. “The next step is improvement in the socio-economic status of our country and the development of human resources,” he said. “The ILO in cooperation with our government could [help] establish decent working conditions, that is improvising the working and living conditions of our workers, as well as their competitiveness.”
The government was committed to a continuation of reforms not just in the cities but also in remote areas “to every village and every person,” Aung Kyi said.
The ILO’s Burma liaison officer, Steven Marshall, said that even though much remains to be done, the oppressive environment which existed in Burma just a few years ago is lifting. He said the intimidation against workers seeking basic rights was so fierce when he first began visiting Burma in 2007 that anyone found in possession of his calling card was arrested. “Of course, we managed to negotiate their release because it was completely unacceptable. People were very brave in supporting us [then],” he said in a statement this week.
In a videoed address to the ILO’s 2011 annual conference, Suu Kyi asked the organization to “help usher in an era of broad-based social justice in our country. “Labour rights are integral to the triumphant development of a nation and, once again, may I reiterate the declaration of faith of the ILO that failure in one nation raises obstacles in the way of progress in all other nations,” she said. “Burma must not be allowed to fail and the world must not be allowed to fail Burma.”
ILO Director General Juan Somavia told delegates to this year’s conference, which began on May 30 and ends on June 15, it will be a “very special moment” when Suu Kyi attends. “It reflects some political changes underway which we should welcome and [we] must seize and expand the opportunities they represent. We didn’t give up and so it should be for the future,” he said.