The International Labor Organization has given the military government in Burma until November to take stronger action to end forced labor or it will call on countries around the world to take action that could include economic sanctions.
An ILO Committee of experts says it is deeply concerned that forced labor continues to be imposed throughout Burma and that the authorities have done little to improve the situation. They note that although the practice is widespread among local officials and army officers, no one in Burma has ever been prosecuted for forcing people to work against their will.
The experts say they are particularly concerned that three people who had contacts with the ILO over the forced labor issue have been convicted of high treason. Their death sentences were subsequently commuted on appeal to the Supreme Court. But, the experts note, the judges failed to say that the lower court had made an error in sentencing these people for having contact with the ILO.
The ILO representative in Burma, Richard Horsey, calls this a very serious matter. Mr. Horsey came to Geneva to testify before a committee of experts this week. He tells VOA that more and more people are coming to him directly to complain about being forced to work long hours for no pay and often under abusive conditions. He says these people should not be put at risk because they have come to see him.
"I raised these cases directly with the government. Now, up until now, the response has been inadequate," he said. "Nobody to date has been prosecuted for imposing forced labor and this has to change. I believe that until the government starts to prosecute its local officials for illegally imposing forced labor, they will not be able to convince the international community that they are really serious in eliminating this practice."
Mr. Horsey says most of the people used as forced laborers are young boys, old men or women of all ages. They are forced to work on road construction and other development projects. Some are used as porters for the military. Many people, including children, are conscripted into the army against their will.
The ILO says it is particularly disturbed by reports of army porters being used as human mine-sweepers. It says people, very often children, are forced to march in front of troops. They detonate landmines in their way, causing them to be killed or injured.
The ILO is giving Burma until November to implement a previously agreed upon plan of action for eliminating forced labor. If no changes are made, Mr. Horsey says, the ILO will call for its member states, workers and employers organizations to review their relations with Burma and take appropriate measures.
"It could include economic sanctions. The United States imposed economic sanctions last year and did indeed cite the ILO resolution as one of the justifications for that," he said. "So, one of the possibilities is economic sanctions, [limiting] foreign direct investment and so on, but it is not limited to that and it is left up to the constituents to decide what the appropriate measures might be."
The ILO committee of experts says it expects the Burmese government to supply a detailed report for examination at its next session on all the steps it has taken to ensure compliance with the 1930 Forced Labor Convention, both by changing its laws and taking practical steps to end forced labor.