There may be no country with a worse record on labor rights than
Burma, where the military regime regularly forces workers to toil
on government and private projects for no pay. If the new global
order can't act against such an extreme case, then there is little
hope of effective protection of labor rights anywhere.
The campaign to support the democratic opposition in Burma nevertheless
has exerted significant pressure on the ruling junta, mainly by
attacking corporate investment in Burma and sales of Burmese products.
The drive for strong economic sanctions has the support of opposition
leader and Nobel Peace Prize
winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
In the '90s, U.S. supporters of Burmese democracy attacked companies
that operated in Burma with demonstrations, newspaper ads, shareholder
resolutions and embarrassment of corporate officers and directors,
forcing corporations such as Amoco, Texaco, Pepsi, Disney, Ericsson
and Levi Strauss to withdraw from the country. But some U.S. companies
remain, most notably Unocal in partnership with France-based TotalElfFina.
The screws tightened a bit more in 1997 when President Clinton
issued an executive
order prohibiting new investment in Burma--action stronger than the
sanctions imposed by the European Union, but weaker than measures
sought by pro-democracy campaigners. Although George W. Bush had said
he opposed economic sanctions, he recently renewed Clinton's ban--an
indication of how much of a pariah Burma has become.
Burmese exiles protest against
the energy giant
Unocal, which is being sued for battery, unlawful
detention, slavery and other abuses.
After the sanctions, the regime needed new sources of income to
supplement the cash generated by its two major exports--energy (oil
and natural gas) and drugs, especially heroin. Many Southeast Asian
governments, embracing Burma, have ignored its human rights violations.
Capital has flowed in from Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong
and Korea, especially into garment factories that military officials
According to the Economist Intelligence
Unit, wages in these factories are as low as 4 cents an hour,
the lowest-paid workforce in the world. Garment exports to the United
States--which could have unilaterally set quotas as low as it wanted--rapidly
expanded, hitting $412 million last year and probably close to $500
million this year, making the United States Burma's largest garment
Last year, the National Labor
Committee, which has led many sweatshop fights, and the Free
Burma Coalition exposed prominent brand names and retailers,
including Kenneth Cole, Jansport, Nautica, Adidas and Ikea, whose
products were made in Burma. With the glare of publicity, many of
those companies promised to cut off all Burmese sources. Even Wal-Mart,
which initially refused, made the pledge after revelations that
one of its suppliers was a major druglord. But anti-sweatshop groups
report that others--like the big May and Federated department store
chains, Fila and Tommy Hilfiger--continue to buy from Burmese factories.
Meanwhile, as some big name brands pledge to avoid Burma, Burmese
products have flooded into bargain retailers like Ames and Costco.
A bipartisan coalition in Congress, led by liberals like Iowa Sen.
Tom Harkin but also including right-wing Republicans like North
Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, is backing legislation that would ban
all imports from Burma until there is significant progress on human
rights, democracy and counter-narcotics action. Although there is
little overt opposition to the ban, mainly from the apparel importers
trade association, there is a lot of foot-dragging from even moderate
Democrats "who favor trade over human rights," according to Simon
Billenness, a leader in the Free Burma Coalition.
The legislation was prompted not only by the soaring imports, but
also by an unprecedented decision last year by the International
Labor Organization to ask its members--which include governments,
unions and businesses from most countries in the world--to review
relationships with Burma and cease any activity that could abet
forced labor. Although this first-ever ILO call for such concerted
action was theoretically a step toward global enforcement of core
labor rights, there have been few concrete responses.
Indeed, many are weary of challenging the free trade regime. World
Trade Organization Director Michael Moore admitted two years ago
that his organization would do nothing about labor practices in
Burma, a WTO member. And under the WTO, the European Union and Japan
had earlier challenged a 1996 Massachusetts law, modeled on the
anti-apartheid measures aimed at South Africa in the '80s, that
prohibited state government purchases from companies doing business
in Burma. The WTO never ruled on the challenge because the Massachusetts
legislation, which had inspired several cities to pass similar laws,
was overturned in the courts first.
But legal advisers to the democracy campaigners suggest that states
and local governments could pass other legislation, including calls
for divestment by public bodies, such as pension funds, of stock
in companies that do business with Burma. Los Angeles, Minneapolis
and other cities, as well as the state of Massachusetts, have either
passed such laws or are considering them. Meanwhile, students on
many campuses are pushing for divestment or university bans on purchasing
from businesses operating in Burma.
Beyond the continuing publicity campaigns against various brands
or stores like Suzuki (which has an assembly plant in Burma), Marriott
(which has a partnership with a resort hotel in Burma) or Pottery
Barn (which introduced a special line of Burmese baskets), groups
promoting democracy in Burma, including the international labor
movement, are pursuing both shareholder actions and lawsuits against
In 1996 two lawsuits, now partly consolidated, claimed that Unocal
was liable for harm to Burmese citizens who were forced to work
on its pipeline by the Burmese military, which was a partner with
Unocal and provided security for the project. It was the first time
that a corporation had been sued for human rights violations under
the old Alien Torts Claim Act, which had been successfully revived
to sue foreign governmental human rights abusers in U.S. courts.
A California district court agreed to hear the case, and concluded
that the evidence showed that Unocal knew about the use of forced
labor and benefited from it. But the judge issued a summary judgment
that Unocal was not liable, because the evidence did not show that
it had control over the government.
International Labor Rights
Fund (ILRF) lawyer Terry Collingsworth, who argued one of the
cases, believes that he will win an appeal now underway that argues
it was only necessary to show that Unocal aided and abetted the
military action and that, in any case, it should have been an issue
for a jury to decide, not the judge. Meanwhile, the two cooperating
legal teams--from ILRF and EarthRights
International--also are suing Unocal for battery, unlawful detention,
slavery and other abuses in California state court. The cases could
cost Unocal well over $1 billion if it loses.
Earlier this year, the AFL-CIO,
the labor-linked LongView Investment Fund and the Maryknoll
religious order sponsored shareholder resolutions at different companies,
including Unocal, Citigroup, McDermott International and Halliburton.
These resolutions typically asked the companies to guarantee that
they are not involved in forced labor or violation of sanctions
in Burma. Although none passed, they did win strong support in comparison
to previous Burma-related resolutions.
Such actions send a clear message that the high legal and political
risks of doing business with the junta could depress stock value
and corporate performance. But while supporters of Burmese democracy
put pressure on governments and corporations in the United States
and Europe, the military regime can still count on investment from
Asian neighbors, new foreign aid from Japan and aggressive marketing
of cheap Burmese goods by Chinese businesses. Despite government
talks with the opposition, there are no signs of progress toward
democracy or an end to forced labor.
Now read Joshua Schenker's "Pariah