BANGKOK—After a one-day strike by factory workers in Rangoon earlier this week proceeded unimpeded by Burmese police, thoughts are turning to the possible introduction of trade union legislation in the military-ruled country.
The recent downing of tools by around 500 mostly female workers at a Rangoon shoe factory follows a number of strikes during 2010 in a country where large public gatherings are rare and peaceful dissent is usually not tolerated.
What form the trade union laws take remains to be seen, however, with the terms currently undecided. On March 23, the International Labor Organization (ILO) asked the Burmese Government “to transmit to the Office, without delay, the draft law on Labor Organizations currently under preparation so as to allow a full and meaningful consultation.”
The request came after a June 2010 complaint sent to the ILO regarding Burma’s violations of conventions regarding freedom of association and the rights of workers and others to organize. The complainants said that that there “is no legal framework to ensure freedom of association and, in practice, trade unionists are severely persecuted, including through the violation of their basic civil liberties.” The Burmese government labels the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma as a terrorist organization, with union figures among the country’s more than 2100 political prisoners.
After requesting the Burmese authorities to submit the draft laws on freedom of association for review, the ILO deferred to Nov 2011 a decision on setting-up a Commission of Inquiry into Burma’s alleged breaches of the freedom of association norms. This week’s decision came after a late February “high-level” visit to Burma by an ILO delegation, which “received the full cooperation of the Government of Myanmar [Burma] in the organization and conduct of its program,” according to the ILO., which “was able to meet and hold a valuable discussion with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi” during the February 22-25 trip.
The Burmese government told the ILO that the proposed law is based on the country’s 2008 Constitution, which contains provisions allowing for freedom of association. The Constitution is a much-criticized document that opponents say underpins continued military rule under a quasi-civilian guise. In what was widely seen as a rigged referendum, the Constitution was controversially voted upon in in the days and weeks after the 2008 Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta region of Burma, leaving an estimated 147,000 people dead and 3 million homeless.
During the visit, when asked about the proposed legislation, the Burmese government said that it had consulted the state-backed Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) on the draft law, “which would be presented to Parliament at its second or third session and would be in full conformity with Convention No. 87.”
However whether or not the Burmese Parliament will be allowed debate the new law or will be able to propose amendments remains to be seen. So far, opposition parties have had to submit topics for discussion 15 days in advance, with just 15 minutes allotted to date for individual house sittings. The Shan Nationalities Development Party (SNDP) has submitted a motion seeking to establish a procedure for forming private associations. However, according to Mizzima, the speaker of the Upper House of Parliament has said that motions featured in the media prior to their discussion in parliament will be dismissed.
The Burmese Home Affairs minister has already said that a motion seeking amnesty for Burma’s political prisoners cannot be discussed in the new parliament, which was elected on Nov 7, 2010 in a vote dismissed as unfree by most observers. The army and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), which is dominated by retired soldiers, holds over 80% of seats at national and regional parliamentary levels. The amnesty motion was proposed by the National Democratic Force (NDF), a minor opposition party comprised of former members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), which broke away after the NLD decided to boycott the 2010 elections, which it regarded as a facade aimed at perpetuating army rule in a civilian guise.
In the complaint against the Burmese government lodged at the ILO, ten union-affiliated political prisoners were mentioned. In response, the Burmese government told the ILO that the detainees are all criminals, in keeping with the official position that there are no political prisoners in Burma.The Burmese statement added that the prisoners are all being well-treated and are in good health. However the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) told The Irrawaddy that some of the names listed in the ILO documentation are in poor health and have been denied medical treatment in the various prisons across Burma where they are jailed. The AAPP is a Thailand-based organization which keeps track of prisoners of conscience in Burma.
While workers rights are routinely violated in Burma, according to human rights organizations, the ILO is working with the Burmese government to eradicate forced labor, one of the many transgressions noted in the latest ILO country report on Burma. According to the ILO statement, there are many forced-labor abuses taking place in Burma, such as “the exaction of forced labor by the civilian authorities and by the military, prison labor, forced labor related to the right to land use/occupancy, trafficking for forced labor and forced labor associated with both formal and informal sector commercial activities.”
The ILO notes that Burmese petitions to a complaints mechanism established in 2007 are increasing, reflecting what it believes is growing public awareness that some redress against worker rights violations is possible. The ILO says that “during the period from 21 October 2010 to 21 February 2011, a total of 127 new complaints were received, bringing the total number of complaints received since the inception of the complaints mechanism to 630.”
However, in a cautionary note, the ILO says that the government complaints concerning forced labor do not appear to be given the same level of priority as those about underage recruitment into the army, citing “ considerable delays being experienced before any response is received.” The ILO lamented that “in the case of complaints concerning the armed forces, the responses that are received usually make reference to voluntary community work or to citizens’ duties, or do not accept the complaint as genuine.”
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