ILO Burma Rep Passes the Torch
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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

ILO Burma Rep Passes the Torch

By Richard Horsey Sunday, July 1, 2007


Richard Horsey, a liaison officer for the International Labour Organization, has served the UN agency in and outside Rangoon for the last 10 years. He ended his assignment o­n June 4 and is succeeded by Stephen Marshall. Horsey spoke recently with The Irrawaddy about what the ILO has been able to achieve in Burma during his tenure.

Question: How would you answer critics who say the Burmese regime has no political will to address the problem of forced labor and that the February agreement was reached o­nly as a result of the ILO’s threat of referring Burma to the International Court of Justice?

Answer: The important question should not be why the authorities decided to sign the agreement (with ILO), but whether they have the political will to implement it, now that they have signed it. So far, the signs are positive, and a number of cases of forced labor lodged through the complaint mechanism have been resolved and the officials responsible have had action taken against them—in some cases being sent to prison.

Q: What has the complaint mechanism revealed about the incidence of forced labor in Burma?

A: I think we have to be careful not to assume that the complaints received by the ILO give a full picture of the problem. For example, it is obviously difficult for people in more remote areas to contact the ILO, and we can therefore expect to receive fewer complaints from those areas. But that should certainly not be taken as an indication of how serious the problem is in those areas.

The complaint mechanism is not a tool for mapping the nature of the problem, nor is its aim to capture a significant proportion of the cases in the country. Its purpose is to demonstrate that people who continue to impose forced labor can be held to account—even sent to prison—and this can contribute to a change in the prevailing climate of impunity.

Q: In which area of the country is forced labor most prevalent?

A: Forced labor exists all over the country but is particularly serious in the remote border areas where there is o­ngoing insecurity, as well as in northern Arakan State, where the problem is related to broader issues of discrimination against the Muslim population.

Q: International and exile media groups often report o­n the practice of portering in conflict areas, particularly in eastern Burma. Is the ILO able to access these regions?

A: Portering for the army in situations of conflict is o­ne of the most serious forms of forced labor. It is just o­ne of the many kinds of abuse that populations in insecure areas face. These are the most difficult areas to access, but this does not mean that we are unaware of the situation there, as plenty of credible information does get out.

The challenge is to find practical ways to have an impact o­n the situation, since documentation of the abuses and advocacy, while vital, have so far not been able to change the realities o­n the ground.

Q: Do Burma’s notorious prison labor camps and the practice of using prisoners as porters for the army fall under the purview of the ILO?

A: In most cases, prison labor falls outside the scope of the ILO’s Forced Labor Convention, and it is not something that I have been able to follow closely. But I suspect that some people in authority may have seen prisoners as an acceptable alternative to the use of villagers as porters for the army, and it is clear that many young male prisoners do end up as porters. I have always strongly made the point that this is not an alternative that the ILO or the international community could ever endorse.
Q: How would you characterize the overall situation for labor rights, labor exploitation and freedom of association in Burma?

A: The ILO’s mandate in Burma is restricted to the issue of forced labor, so I have not been able to systematically follow the situation o¬n other labor issues. Certainly there is no freedom of association, which has been a matter of o¬ngoing concern for the ILO.

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