313th Session of the ILO Governing Body, March 2012
Institutional Section, Agenda Item No. 6
Developments Concerning Burma’s Observance of Convention No. 29 on Forced Labor
In the space of the past few months -- and particularly in the past few days -- we have witnessed some significant, historic changes that establish a clear legal basis for the government to eliminate forced labor. The amendment to theWards and Village Tracts Administration Act, passed last Friday, March 23, by Parliament, raises the promise of changing the lives of the many people who previously had little ability to protect themselves from involuntary, unpaid labor.
Over the period we have discussed this issue at the Governing Body we have regularly noted that the benchmarks by which we assess progress are thethree recommendations of the 1998 Commission of Inquiry. Those are:
- Bring the legislative texts in line with Convention No. 29
- Ensure that in actual practice forced labor is no longer imposed by the authorities
- Strictly enforce criminal penalties of the exaction of forced labor.
The new law addresses the issue of the legislative text and also provides a starting point for creating a system of criminal enforcement. The focus now must be on implementing the criminal penalties contained in the new law and taking the appropriate measures to effectively eradicate forced labor throughout the country.
As the report of the Liaison Officer notes, many positive steps have been taken:
- The release of the 19 labor activists;
- The repeal of the 1907 Towns and Villages Acts;
- The preliminary consultations on altering the Prison Act;
- The consultations with the armed forces on terminating the use of porteringand the ending of impunity;
- The discussion with the Ministries of Finance and Planning on altering those practices that led to the use of forced labor;
- The continued use of the forced labor complaint mechanism; and
- The ongoing awareness-raising activities conducted with the ILO.
We welcome these steps. Nonetheless, the practice of forced labor continues. Reports indicate a continuing use of forced labor by the military in conflict areas. Underage soldiers continue to be recruited. Efforts to raise awareness about basic worker rights have increased but are insufficient for a country of over 50 million people, and awareness of worker rights in many parts of the country, especially in ethnic areas, are inadequate. Prosecutions for using forced labor remain rare.
The Memorandum of Understanding between the Government and the ILO represents a promising new avenue for addressing the long-standing use of forced labor, much of which has been implemented by local and regional civilian and military authorities. The framework agreement lays out a clear strategy that brings the force of government at many levels to bear on this problem. The thirteen action items identified include all of the issues that have been raised by the Governing Body.
Implementing this strategy will require a significant, targetedoutlay of both budgetary and other resources. Government and military officials will have to be made aware of the law and become knowledgeable about its enforcement. A broad awareness campaign both inside and outside of government, and for all areas of the country, is necessary.We call on the Government make the resource commitments necessary to enable this program to reach its goals by 2015.
We would be remiss if we did not recognize the invaluable role played in this by the ILO, and in particular, the Liaison Officer. It is important that the government continue to work with the ILO, which has played a crucial role in helping to bring about the recent changes in law and will be a valuable partner in translating this law into practice.
Much remains to be done. It is our sincere hope that the words written over the past few weeks form the foundation for a just labor system tomorrow.