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ILO: Burma Has Reduced Some Forced Labor, But Practice Continues

The United Nations' International Labor Organization has issued a report on forced labor in Burma, after a high-level team made an unprecedented three-week visit to the country. The team found Burma's military government has made some effort to reduce forced labor in the country, but the practice continues in certain areas.

The team spent three weeks in Burma to determine whether the government is implementing new laws against forced labor.

The International Labor Organization official in charge of the report, Francis Maupain, told VOA the team concluded the government has spread information about the new laws, which make forced labor a criminal offense. The laws, however, have made little difference. "It's limited. That's the conclusion. It's limited because forced labor still exists and it still exists especially in the border areas where insurgency may still be going on," Maupain said.

International labor groups for years have criticized the practice by the Burmese military of forcing peasants in remote areas to work without pay.

They add that as the military has expanded into agriculture, it has forced villagers to work on farms without pay. They say workers are frequently beaten and some have died because of the abuse.

Mr. Maupain has said the Burmese government has shown a commitment to addressing the issue, but military commanders do not always enforce the laws. "The main problem which is found by the team, that is that the will may exist in Yangon, but so far it has trouble to percolate down to the grass roots level," he said.

The team says a big problem is that violators are not prosecuted. It recommended that an independent branch of the judiciary be set up, and that the ILO be allowed to have a representative in Burma to investigate and help prosecute cases of forced labor.

Friday, one of the groups that first brought up the practice of forced labor in Burma, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, praised the ILO report.

An official of the confederation, which represents 150 million union workers around the world, Januk Kuchkievitch says it was the first major legal investigation of a human rights issue in Burma. He has said the report establishes that forced labor does take place, but he has warned the ILO and its 145 member nations against expecting any major change in Burma any time soon.

"We believe it will be some time before any meaningful ILO presence can be established and we also believe that unless there are serious signs of progress in the political dialogue inside Burma, it will be very difficult for that meaningful presence to take place or have effect," Kuchkievitch said.

Mr. Kuchkievitch says his group will maintain pressure on the Burmese government. He says it will seek to discourage foreign investment, despite attempts from some countries to engage the Burmese government and criticism that isolating the government has not produced significant results.

The ILO will examine the issue of forced labor in Burma at its annual assembly next week.