Renewed bid to fight forced labour

The government of Myanmar and the International Labour Organization (ILO) have for the third time renewed an agreement aimed at tackling forced labour.

“Neither party sought any changes and there were absolutely no issues in terms of its renewal,” Steve Marshall, liaison officer for the ILO in Myanmar, told IRIN in an interview.

The agreement will come into effect on 26 February for another year.

However, Marshall said much work was still required to ensure the proper application of the agreement.

Recently, 17 people - mostly farmers who complained about forced labour, or people helping them to lodge their complaints - were imprisoned because of their involvement in ILO cases, breaching the agreement.

While 13 were subsequently released, four are still in detention.

Under the agreement, first signed in February 2007, anyone who complains about forced labour or facilitates a complaint is protected by law.

Marshall said arrests of this kind raised “serious credibility issues” as far as the implementation of the pact was concerned.

“Although harassment of this nature is reported only in respect of a minority of cases, they of course impact on the confidence of people to complain,” he said.

The agreement will examined by the ILO governing body in Geneva in March, where it will be fully reviewed, he said.

Fears of retaliation

The Myanmar government passed a law in 1999 forbidding the use of forced labour but the phenomenon is still documented in various forms by the UN and international human rights groups.

In a farming village in Kunchangone Township in the southern Ayeyarwady Delta, men are forced to work as night guards at a nearby army post, or hand over the equivalent of US$2 to the military unit.

“We don’t want to do this job, but we can’t refuse,” one angry farmer told IRIN. “If we are unlucky, we can be put on the list,” he said, referring to retaliation by the military.

Despite joint awareness-raising by the ILO and the government about the law, most perpetrators are from the military or local authorities.

Under the agreement, the agency assesses complaints directly from victims, or through a nationwide network of volunteers who act as facilitators for complainants.

The ILO compiles evidence and hands over the cases to the government for investigation, which can result in compensation to victims and prosecution of perpetrators.

Since 2007, the ILO has submitted more than 200 cases - about half concerning underage recruitment to the military.

Child soldiers

Government law states that no one younger than 18 should be in the army, but military units are under pressure to maintain their strength.

“While some kids volunteer to join up, many of the cases we get are not voluntary,” said Marshall. “In either case it is against the law.”

“A kid is walking home from the market, or home from school or at the bus stop or at the railway station, and he is approached by a broker … and either tricked or straight out abducted into the army,” he said.

The average age of child soldiers seen in cases submitted to the ILO is about 15 or 16, but there have been cases of children as young as 11.

Of all the types of forced labour, Marshall said the government was the most responsive in this area, locating the child, returning him to his family and prosecuting perpetrators.

Since 2007, the ILO has helped with the release of more than 80 children from the military, while about 30 cases are still under negotiation, he said.

Despite this, Marshall said a lot more had to be done to disseminate information about the law. “There is a large proportion of people out there who don’t know what their rights are,” he said.

“Also, in the country you have to be quite brave to exercise your rights. So the number of complaints in no way can be seen to be reflecting the size of the problems.”

Blame economics

According to the ILO and rights groups, the military regularly uses forced labour for its activities, such as sentry duty, or when camps are shifted and porters are needed to carry supplies, or in construction.

Military units are also under-funded and rely on farming to survive, and villagers are often compelled to work for them.

The practice is also used by civilian authorities, who cannot afford the labour to build roads, for example.

“A lot of forced labour is driven by a very bad economic structure. The local authorities have no money, they’ve got no resources,” said Marshall. “It’s not just a social issue; it’s an economic policy management issue as well.”