The recent political reforms in Burma have set the business pages abuzz. As transnational corporations seek to explore new investment opportunities, Burma’s hotels are now full to bursting point with international business people seeking new investment opportunities.
It is very likely that newly established industrial zones inside Burma will lead to an increase in rural-urban internal migration. The Investment Commission has designated three sites as Special Economic Zones and 18 sites as smaller industrial zones. This is significant as industrial zones are often at the forefront of the race to the bottom in terms of labour protection and wages. This trend is particularly visible in labour-intensive industries such as the garment manufacturing sector. As the government looks to promote foreign investment, there is a real risk that this will be done at the cost of labour laws and decent wages.
However, we believe that there now exist new opportunities to have frank and open discussions with concerned government agencies inside Burma. Following a number of meetings MMN has held with the government, it has become apparent that some progress can be made in responding to the needs of migrants. It is also a timely moment to engage with the Myanmar government as they are presently formulating and reforming their law and policies regarding migrants, and have appeared open to input from civil society organizations.
Moreover, it is of strategic importance for migrant advocates to closely monitor the impact that the changes inside Burma are having on migration and labor processes. Equally, it is critical that advocates participate in regular policy dialogues with the relevant authorities, disseminate information, build the capacity of migrant rights advocates in responding to changes, network with civil society organizations and potential partners inside Burma, and prepare for the ASEAN meetings to be held in 2014.
More specifically, this project aims to advocate for improved labor protection and fairer wages for all Burmese workers. This includes those working in other countries, especially Thailand. The project therefore incorporates two components: labour standards and protection within Burma, and Burmese migration policy affecting workers outside the country.
With the rapidly changing political climate in mind, the project aims to build the capacity of migrant advocates to monitor and analyze the issues of exploitation in supply chains and to promote workers’ rights in this context. The target for this capacity building will include advocates from not only Thailand and Burma, but from other Mekong countries who are likely to experience impact of changes in investment trends in the region. During the project period, MMN plans to facilitate regular information exchange between migrant advocates and advocates working on supply chains and/or corporate social responsibilities (CSR) in these countries.
The project also aims to invest time and effort in building a foundation for meaningful participation and engagement at the ASEAN meetings to be held in Burma in 2014. Engaging in ASEAN meetings chaired by Burma will be a new experience for many of civil society organizations, including most of the members and partners of MMN.
Ultimately, we hope to contribute through this project towards ensuring that the people of the Mekong sub-region have access to better standards of labor protection and will be able to enjoy an improved quality of life, as a result of the economic growth expected inside Burma.
This project is supported by Open Society Institute (OSI), and its partial support comes from CCFD-terre Solidaire.
Summary of Current Situation in Burma
Burma is currently undergoing significant transition, as the military regime which took power in 1962 has initiated a series of political reforms to move to a military backed civilian administration. Positive developments include the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November 2010 and other political prisoners, with President Thein Sein promising to free all political detainees by the end of 2013, as well as reducing media censorship, creating the National Human Rights Commission and enacting laws to allow the formation of trade unions, the right to strike and the right to demonstrate.
The Deputy Minister of Labour explained that the new labour laws are in the interests of Burma by improving transparency and encouraging foreign investment. However, the rush to invest in the Burmese economy comes with concerns that without the effective implementation of labour law, mechanisms for the protection of workers’ rights and guarantees for improved working conditions, the increase in foreign investment could have a detrimental impact on workers in Burma by exacerbating the “race to the bottom” which could potentially suppress wages and labour standards across Asia. In addition Burma urgently needs to increase public participation and transparency in the legislative process, as well as lasting resolutions to the long-running ethnic conflicts throughout the country.
Since the lifting of sanctions by Western governments in 2012 and the message has been that Burma is “open for business”. In June 2013 two 15-year mobile phone licenses were awarded through a competitive process to Norway’s Telenor and Qatar Telecom, the largest foreign investment in Burma since the civilian government took power in 2011. Bidding for offshore oil licences was completed on 15 November 2013. However protests continue against Chinese backed projects including the Letpadaung copper mine with increasing arrests taking place under section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession law. Ethnic tensions continue as well, with the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly passing a resolution in November 2013 urging Burma to give the stateless Rohingya minority equal access to citizenship and to crack down on Buddhist violence against them and other Muslims.