Finnish-born Kari Tapiola is the executive director of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and has been with the Geneva-based group since 1996. Last week, he paid a visit to Burma’s administrative capital Naypyidaw to renew a one-year agreement which allows the United Nations to monitor complaints of forced labor.During his stay in Burma, he discussed with Burmese Labor Minister Aung Kyi and other officials the issues of freedom of association and the rights of workers to organize freely. He visited locations where incidents of forced labor had been reported and met with family members of individuals imprisoned for reporting cases of forced labor to the ILO.
Kari Tapiola

Question: What were the main topics of discussion between ILO officers and Labor Minister Aung Kyi? Did you reach any new agreements with the Burmese government?

Answer: The main topics were the functioning of the mechanism of complaints on forced labor and awareness-raising activities. We also had specific discussions on preventing the recruitment of minors into the army as well as on freedom of association.

We signed an extension of the trial period of the Supplementary Understanding, which in February 2007 established the complaints mechanism operated by the ILO liaison officer. This was the third extension, again for one year––from now until 2011––and is in unchanged form.

Q. What is the latest situation regarding forced labor in Burma? Could you also comment about underage recruitment in the army?

A. The use of forced labor remains a problem throughout the country. There are no figures available and currently there is no way of measuring it. Awareness of the need to abolish forced labor has increased among civilian authorities. However, we cannot say the same about the military. We have had complaints involving both civilian and military authorities. The military also runs large-scale business activities.

The forced recruitment of children into the military is a problem which has been recognized at a high level. We met with the authoritative committee on the prevention of underage recruitment, and we discussed concrete measures such as age verification, discharge procedures and punishment of perpetrators.

An increasing number of the complaints that we receive are on under-age recruitment which by definition is forced labor. In the first two years of the mechanism (2007-08), altogether 42 children were released within an average of 145 days. In 2009, the total was 30 children released in an average of 106 days. The number of these cases has increased and the time to find a resolution has shortened. Last week, while I was in the country, three new cases of under-age recruitment were received. The government has in practice reacted relatively rapidly and with positive action. Other forced labor cases are more complicated.

Q. Did the number of complaints from the public increase during the past year? To what extent is the ILO helping victims of forced labor in Burma?

A. The overall number of complaints has increased. They are mainly centered on under-age recruitment. There have been less complaints on other forms of forced labor, and I believe that this is because there have been arrests and imprisonment of complainants and their facilitators––people who have acted on their behalf. These events are widely known and obviously discourage the lodging of complaints.

Q. Did you call for the release of victims of forced labor who sent complaints to the ILO office in Rangoon? And how did the government respond to discussions on the “right to free association?”

A. As on all earlier occasions, we called for the release of all those who are in prison who have wanted to use the complaints mechanism and be in touch with the ILO. These cases are very serious.

As the Governing Body of the ILO has pointed out, solving these cases is fundamental to the operation of the complaints mechanism. We had a discussion on the concepts and principles of freedom of   association and the rights of workers to organize freely. The exchange was active. It involved several ministries, the Attorney-General’s office and the Supreme Court. There are fundamental issues, not least of which is the complete absence of legally functioning workers’ organizations.

Q. Are you satisfied with the government’s collaboration with the ILO office in Rangoon? Do you see the government becoming more cooperative with the ILO office?

A. We have a good working relationship with Minister U Aung Kyi, the Labor Ministry and the Director-General level representatives of other ministries who are in the Working Group which follows up the complaints from the government’s side. Cooperation has generally improved, but we are still not reaching all the levels needed for a sustained abolition of forced labor. I certainly hope that the cooperation will increase. The reasons for forced labor are complex and call for a broad engagement by, and joint efforts between, various groups, both civilian and military.

Q. What are the ILO’s plans for 2010 in improving labor conditions in Burma?

A. It is to be remembered that as things are today, the ILO’s mandate is to assist in the abolition of forced    labor. The aim was set through the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry in 1998 and the related decisions by the ILO since then. Our plans for 2010 are to try to further secure that the complaints mechanism is fully operational and its rules are fully respected. If there is to be a significant decline in forced labor, more awareness and education are needed.

The [Burmese] government has now agreed to the production of a simply worded brochure which can be used as a tool in this process. Of course we will follow the political situation and respond positively to developments.