Burma discusses forced labour

By Huong Phan, BBC News Online, Thursday 25 May 2000, 17:52 GMT 18:52 UK

Burma is holding talks with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) on the issue of forced labour.

The three-day meeting in Rangoon, requested by Burma, follows a decision in June last year which banned Burma from receiving ILO aid or attending ILO meetings.

The ILO has said that more than 800,000 people—including women, children and the elderly—are press-ganged into work by the military authorities.

The ILO's unprecedented action reflected growing international unease over the issue of forced labour, while Burma's consent to the talks seems to mark a change of tactics in dealing with international pressure.

In agreeing to meet the ILO delegation, Burma's military government obliquely admits there is a problem.

It had reacted angrily to last year's decision.

Observers, however, sceptical about this sudden about-turn, said that at best, it could only be seen as an exercise in public relations and not a true acceptance of the ILO's criticisms.

Action plan

ILO director-general Juan Somavia said the sole purpose of the visit was “to establish with the government a credible plan of action to ensure the full implementation of the Commission's recommendations.”

In other words, this is no longer a fact-finding mission.

The ILO investigation commission report of 1998 calls for the abolition of the “widespread use” of forced labour.

The report mentions “the impunity with which government officials, in particular the military, treat the civilian population as an unlimited pool of unpaid forced labourers and servants at their disposal”.

It recommends Burma bring its legislation into line with international treaties banning forced labour and to impose penalties on those who violate the ban.

Total denial

The issue was brought to a head recently with criticism of the French oil company Total.

Human rights groups say the company was aware of the Burmese army's action in using forced labour to prepare the way for Total to build a gas pipeline.

The company has denied the charges.

The British Government has put pressure on another company, Premier Oil, to withdraw from Burma.

The country's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called for the unilateral withdrawal of all foreign companies working in Burma.