[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index
The Rising Cost of Labor ("Newsweek
- Subject: The Rising Cost of Labor ("Newsweek
- From: darnott@xxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Thu, 17 May 2001 11:50:00
The Rising Cost of Labor
How foreign pressure may break the regime?s habit of forcing
peasants to work for little or no pay
By Brook Larmer
May 21 issue ?
The small Burmese peasant with the red-stained teeth and the fearful eyes
hardly seems capable of unnerving one of the world?s most repressive
military regimes. Maung is not a terrorist, a guerrilla or even a
dissident. He is something that, in this era of globalization, can be even
more troublesome: he is a plaintiff in a United States court case. And his
target is none other than the American energy giant Unocal, one of Burma?s
biggest foreign investors.
CHEWING ON A WAD of betel nut near his hideout in rural Thailand, Maung
(not his real name) recalls the abuses that accompanied the arrival of the
Yadana gas pipeline, a $1 billion project financed in part by Unocal. The
trouble began in the early 1990s, he says, when an Army battalion assigned
to protect the pipeline corridor set up base near his village in southern
Burma. Soldiers slept in his home, stole his food and forced him to act as
their mule, carrying backbreaking loads through the jungle for nothing but
a bowl of uncooked rice. One day in 1994, a white man in a sleek pickup
truck came to ask for the village?s cooperation on the pipeline project.
The military began forcing Maung, and all the other villagers, to work even
harder, lugging supplies, building a railroad and -- on one occasion --
learing the pipeline route itself. In two years, he says, he got paid only
twice, for a total of about $3. "If there were no pipeline, my life
wouldn?t have turned out like this", says Maung, who fled Burma in 1996.
"My village would not have suffered",
And if the pipeline had not been backed by American money, the world
might not have cared. But as a plaintiff in the high-profile case against
Unocal, Maung is shining a light on the most disturbing and dimly
understood human-rights issue bedeviling Burma -- forced labor.
A decade ago, when the military was gunning down protesters, nullifying an
opposition election victory and jailing the saintly Aung San Suu Kyi, both
the regime and its opponents had more urgent problems to worry about. But
the generals, panicked by an economic plunge mostly of their own doing,
are slowly trying to reintroduce Burma into the world. And they are finding
people like Maung -- and the energetic community of international activists
behind him -- blocking the way.
The roots of forced labor in Burma are very deep, stretching back to
the 13th-century Kingdom of Pagan. But the feudal practice has intensified
under the current military rulers, who see themselves
as 21st-century heirs to the kings. The problem is compounded by a rapidly
expanding military: the Army has doubled in size over the past decade to
more than 400,000 soldiers, whom the government last year admitted it could
no longer afford to feed. An estimated 800,000 people in Burma
(population: 52 million) are forced to work without pay, building roads,
bridges, pagodas, even golf courses. The worst abuses take place in the
fractious border regions, where ragtag Army units are forced to fend for
themselves, with little or no supervision.
Local battalions use villagers to carry supplies, clear roads, grow crops,
build railroads or construct their military bases.
"Forced labor has become a drug for these local commanders," says one
foreign-aid worker in Burma. "They can?t survive without
At the same time, the international outrage over such practices is only
deepening Burma?s debilitating isolation. In 1997, citing its frustrations
with forced-labor and other human-rights abuses, Washington imposed
sanctions that prohibit American companies from making new investments in
Burma. The European Union has expanded its trade restrictions on the
country. Last fall the United Nations? International Labor Organization
passed a resolution asking all member countries to review their
relationships with Burma to ensure that they did nothing to perpetuate its
system of forced labor.
Because of a combination of sanctions and arbitrary economic policies in
Burma, most American corporations that did business in the country --
Motorola, Texaco, PepsiCo, among others -- pulled out their investments
several years ago. Those companies that stayed -- like
Unocal, and its partner, Halliburton, an oil-services supply company run,
until last year, by current U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney -- argue
that as with China, engaging the regime will ultimately be more productive
than shunning it.
Cheney, who has defended his company?s operations as being "fully in
compliance with U.S. policy," has lobbied against Burma sanctions for the
free-trade group USA Engage; Unocal has invested $300 million in the
country since 1993. "We do not defend this regime, we do not
defend human-rights abuses," says Mike Thatcher, a spokesman for
California-based Unocal. "But this is a place that has shut itself off from
the world for decades. The best way to bring the country into the world
community is by engaging it, not by isolating it and making it an economic
But Maung?s case shows just how difficult it is for any company to stay
clean when working with Rangoon. With the guidance of human-rights lawyers,
the poor Burmese peasant and 14 other plaintiffs filed a case against
Unocal in 1996. They do not accuse Unocal or French joint-venture partner
Total of using forced labor directly. (Maung even recalls carrying supplies
for a military battalion one day when a Total employee, clearly unsettled
by the practice, secretly slipped him 150 kyat, about one dollar at the time.)
But the plaintiffs argue that Unocal knew Burmese soldiers were abusing
their rights and still relied on them to provide security for the pipeline
area. Indeed, according to case documents, Unocal?s own consultants told
the company about such abuses both before and during the construction of
the Yadana pipeline. Says Earthrights International lawyer Jed Greer: "If
you hire the mafia to provide protection for you, who?s responsible if they
do something bad? You are."
So far the court has sided with Unocal, largely because the company never
signed a written contract with the Burmese military. Says Thatcher: "We
can?t be held accountable for the military any more than Starbucks in
Seattle is responsible for the actions of the police protecting its store
from protesters." In his summary judgment last year, U.S. district court
Judge Ronald S.W. Lew said that the company "knew that forced labor was
utilized" and "benefited from the practice." But he declined to bring the
case to trial because, he said, Unocal didn?t "control" the security forces
or "conspire" with them to commit the abuses. The plaintiffs? lawyers have
already filed an appeal in both state and district courts, and the
landmark case -- after five years and millions of
dollars -- looks to drag on for several more years.
Any other companies that seek to do business in Burma
will likely face similar
obstacles. A group of refugees from
the Southern Shan
States recently arrived in Thailand with fresh but
typical tales of horror. One middle-aged Shan woman says she was
forced to move, with the rest of her village, to a new site next to an Army
base. When her cousin went back to retrieve their cows last year, soldiers
caught him, beat him to death and took the cows. Before she escaped earlier
this year, the military forced her to work most days growing crops,
clearing roads or building fences at the base.
"The soldiers treat us like animals," she says. "But we have to work. We
have no choice"
The Burmese generals are themselves left with few viable choices. Although
the regime likes to fume about not giving in to external pressure, leaders
well know that the moribund economy cannot grow without outside investment.
That, observers think, has provided the greatest impetus to the recent,
highly secret dialogue between the government and opposition leader Suu
Kyi. "These talks," says one former government official in Rangoon, "are
the generals? own sort of forced labor." And a chore the international
community would do well to encourage.