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Forced Labour

An International Crime Against Humanity

For 30 years, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and other international bodies have been criticizing Burma’s junta for its use of forced labour, which is widespread throughout the country’s cities and rural areas. Forced labour is widely performed by women, children and elderly persons as well as persons otherwise unfit for work. Workers are randomly rounded up by local policy or the military from such public places as train stations, movie theatres or from their homes or places of work. In many cases, the families or the village headmen are responsible for filling the forced labour quotas or providing large sums of money to the military instead. Forced labour is often accompanied by the extortion of money, threats to life and security, extrajudicial punishment, physical abuses, beatings, torture, rape and murder.

Forced Porterage

In rural areas, particularly ethnic areas, forced porterage is a common form of forced labour and unarguably one of the most dangerous. Porters for the military are required to carry heavy loads of ammunition, food and other supplies between army camps, back and forth over rugged mountains which are inaccessible to vehicles. In these instances, workers are not paid for their work and are allowed very little food (they must bring their own), water or rest. In many cases, porters are bound in groups of 50 to 200 people at night and in all cases are denied medical care. Porters are subject to hostile fire as well as to abuse by the soldiers and many of the women are raped repeatedly. Unarmed themselves, they are placed at the head of columns to detonate mines and booby traps as well as to spring ambushes. According to credible sources, many of these porters die as a result of mistreatment, lack of adequate food and water, and use as human mine sweepers.

The 1998 ILO Report

In 1997, at the request of the workers’ delegates, an extraordinary ILO commission of inquiry was set up to discover the facts of forced labour in Burma. In July 1998, they released their findings in a 392 page document distilled from nearly 10,000 pages of testimonies and eye witness reports.

The ILO banned Burma from future meetings and from any future support: A year after the report was published, the military had still not taken any measures to address the widespread use of forced labour. Therefore, in an unprecented move, the ILO banned Burma from future meetings and from any future support. (See US Dept of Labour Report, 1999).

Excerpts from the ILO report, August 1998:

“There is abundant evidence before the Commission showing the pervasive use of forced labour imposed on the civilian population of Myanmar by the authorities and the military for portering, construction maintenance and servicing of military camps, other work in support of the military , work on agriculture, logging and other production projects undertaken by the authorities ro the military, sometimes for the profit of private individuals, the construction and maintenance of roads, railways and bridges and other infrastructure work….

“…it appears that unfettered powers of military and government officers to exact forced labour from the civilian population are taken for granted…the manifold exactions of forced labour often give rise to the extortion of money…also to threats to life and security…extrajudicial punishment…physical abuses, beatings, torture, rape and murder.

“Forced labour in Myanmar is widely performed by women, children and elderly persons as well as persons otherwise unfit for work.

“Forced labour in Myanmar is almost never remunerated or compensated, secret directives notwithstanding, but on the contrary often goes hand in hand with the exaction of money, food and other supplies form the civilian population.

“Forced labour is a heavy burden on the population…preventing farmers from attending to the needs of their holdings and children from attending school; it falls most heavily on landless labourers and poorer sectors of the population…

“All the information and evidence before the Commission shows utter disregard for the safety and health as well as the basic needs of the people performing forced or compulsory labour…

“A state which supports, instigates, accepts or tolerates forced labour on its territory commits a wrongful act…Whatever may be the position in national law…any person who violates the prohibition of recourse to forced labour under the Convention is guilty of an international crime, that is also, if committed in widespread or systematic manner, a crime against humanity.”

“The power to impose compulsory labour will not cease to be taken for granted until those used to exercising it are actually brought to face criminal responsibility.”

“The Commission considers…the establishment of a government freely chosen by the people and the submission of all public authorities to the rule of law are, in practice, indispensable prerequisites for the suppression of forced labour in Myanmar.

“This report reveals a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation of large sections of the population…The government, the military and the administration seem oblivious to the human rights of the people…their actions gravely offend human dignity and have a debasing effect on the civil society…where human rights are denied or violated in any part of the world it is bound to have a chain effect on other parts of the world and it is therefore of vital interest to the international community…”.

International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU) Commentary


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