In the International Labor Organization's (ILO) recently-published 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labor, the ILO revealed that an estimated 21 million people across the globe are victims of forced labor.
The Asia/Pacific region accounts for the largest number of people forced into forced labor in the world – 56% of the global total. While forced labor is an international scourge, its particular concentration in Asia should rally the international community and individual countries to establish better safeguards against forced labor in the region.
Forced labor has long been a problem in Burma. The military has regularly used civilians to carry supplies, build roads and compounds, and clean and cook for troops. In 1998 the ILO convened a commission of inquiry to investigate forced labor in Burma, and after an extensive investigation it cited the Burmese government for “flagrant and persistent failure to comply with the [Forced Labor] Convention.”
The ILO also found that those subjected to forced labor received inadequate or nonexistent shelter and medical care, and were frequently beaten, abused, raped, and even killed by the military.
The problem continues: in 2010 PHR conducted an investigation of human rights violations in Chin State, western Burma, and reported that 91.9% of households interviewed reported at least one episode of a family member being forced to porter supplies for the military, sweep for landmines, build roads, conduct hard labor, or act as a servant or cook for the military in the previous year.
Nearly two-thirds of these acts of forced labor were committed by the Burma Army, a military notorious for rampant human rights violations. PHR partner groups have reported that forced labor continues in ethnic areas, and that the military continues to be responsible for the majority of abuses.
The international community should not ignore the military’s ongoing use of forced labor among ethnic communities, which persists despite some recent political reforms in the country.
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi now sits in Parliament, and the government has loosed its draconian media controls – but the military continues to use forced labor, especially in ethnic minority communities. Just last week Aung San Suu Kyi called for the international community to use “healthy skepticism” when assessing the changes in Burma. We should heed her advice.
The United States has announced it will ease its investment and financial services bans on Burma, which will allow US companies to conduct business in Burma. The US and other countries that are racing to invest in Burma should not do so without strict regulations prohibiting forced labor. Allowing companies to rush in without binding restrictions keeping them from profiting from forced labor will only cement the practice as a daily reality for too many people in Burma.