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Myanmar Tests Resolve of I.L.O. on Enforcing Standards

New York Times  |  June 5, 2001  |  Share  |  Source article

GENEVA, June 4 - Nearly all governments agree smooth, seamless international trade is good and mistreatment of workers is bad.

But as antiglobalization protests in Seattle and elsewhere have illustrated, when free trade and labor standards intersect, the results can be surprisingly troublesome.

Look no further than efforts by many governments to take Myanmar to task for flouting international prohibitions against forced labor.

Last November, the International Labor Organization, a United Nations affiliate based in Geneva with 175 member countries, called for stiff measures against Myanmar, formerly called Burma, because of the military government's practice of forcing villagers to do unpaid construction work.

Initially, the European Union, the United States and other countries indicated that they would impose sanctions against Myanmar over the issue. But a new report by the labor organization failed to identify a single nation that had responded to its call with any concrete action.

The reason is that Myanmar belongs to the World Trade Organization, and sanctions with some sting - like a ban on textile exports - would violate W.T.O. rules.

If anything, the effort to isolate and punish Myanmar over its labor practices is losing ground. Japan recently announced the largest aid package since the military government suppressed prodemocracy demonstrators more than a decade ago.

The United States State Department listed Myanmar as among the three worst offenders in its annual report on human rights abuse, and trade preferences for Myanmar were suspended years ago; Americans are also banned from investing in Myanmar. But there is limited support in Congress for additional sanctions - in part because the government of Myanmar has reopened dialogue with the country's most prominent dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi - and the United States remains Myanmar's largest export market.

Indeed, Myanmar's trade with both the United States and the European Union has soared recently. According to Eurostat, the union's statistical agency, the volume of trade between the 15 countries in the union and Myanmar shot up from 222.6 million euros ($188 million) in December 1999 to 404.3 million ($342 million) in December 2000. The Commerce Department reports a near- quadrupling of American imports from Myanmar since 1997, reaching $412 million last year.

Oddly, that growth has occurred in part because of American diplomatic cold-shouldering of Myanmar. No agreement has been negotiated on a bilateral quota for apparel, like the ones the United States has with most other developing countries. Manufacturers from China and elsewhere have set up shop in Myanmar specifically to exploit the loophole.

The labor organization's fruitless effort to take a strong stand against Myanmar has shed a harsh light on its lack of enforcement power. At the March meeting of the organization's governing body, American officials worried publicly about its ineffectiveness. "In the absence of democratic reforms in Burma, the practical ability of an I.L.O. presence there to assure that forced labor has been eliminated nationwide is highly problematic," Charles Spring, a Labor Department official, told the group.

Not that it has not kept trying: in late May, the organization said Myanmar had agreed in principle to allow an I.L.O. team into the country to conduct an independent investigation of its arguments that it is moving against forced labor. Details have yet to be negotiated.

The Bush administration has said it opposes the direct linking of trade issues and worker safeguards. In April, the White House said it would review a free-trade pact that the Clinton administration concluded last year with Jordan that included labor-standards provisions, the first such pact to do so.

Many developing nations prefer to leave the issue of labor standards to the labor organization, while trade unions and workers' rights activists want the World Trade Organization to have jurisdiction because the trade group's dispute-settlement system has the power to authorize trade sanctions.

Some on Capitol Hill would like to force the issue by enacting a ban on textile imports from Myanmar, which would probably provoke a complaint to the World Trade Organization. In late May, Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, introduced such a bill in the Senate. William Goold, an aide to Senator Harkin, said leaving the matter solely to the labor organization was "asking governments to ignore the clear limitations of the I.L.O."

The labor organization is scheduled to discuss Myanmar again at its annual meeting on Tuesday. Meanwhile, human rights groups and trade unions say nothing has changed in Myanmar, despite a decree against forced labor last October that they called a sham.

"Clearly there is a reluctance by the international community to take concrete steps," said Janek Kuczkiewicz, Asian specialist for the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

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