There has been so much regression on democracy and human rights in Myanmar recently that many people, this editorial page included, have suggested the United States must consider reinstating broad sanctions.

On Thursday, however, there was a positive step forward – an agreement between the two countries to work together to strengthen labor rights and improve labor conditions in Myanmar.

The new initiative, which is backed by the International Labor Organization, was announced in Yangon during a visit by Mike Froman, the United States Trade Representative.

It will involve American and Myanmar officials, other interested governments, businesses, workers and labor groups such as the ILO in developing a multi-year strategy on reforming Myanmar’s labor laws. The intent is also to help the country and its people develop the skills and the systems needed to ensure reforms are consistent with international standards and that they are put into effect.

For instance, Myanmar has recently allowed the formation of labor unions and there are now more than 1,000 of them. But given that the country was ruled by a military junta until 2011, there is little understanding of how workers, government officials and employers should interact or even how to set a minimum wage. The new initiative is expected to address that.

The agreement suggests that Myanmar officials, eager to draw foreign investment into their country, and foreign businesses, eager for a new market, see an economic value in treating workers humanely and respectfully.

It seems no coincidence that the initiative was unveiled at the same time as a $480 million solar power project, financed in part by American investors, that is expected to provide Myanmar with up to 12 percent of its power.

In a statement, Gap Inc., one of the American companies taking part in the initiative, said that “as the first American retailer to begin sourcing from Myanmar, we understand that we have a responsibility to ensure that our vendors provide a safe, healthy and fair workplace for workers.”

If Myanmar’s government, still heavily influenced by the military, is serious about this new commitment, it could be an important turning point. But in recent months there has been more backsliding than forward movement in Myanmar’s transition to a democratic society. So skepticism is warranted.

And even if this initiative bears fruit, the country still faces many serious challenges given the human rights abuses against the Rohinga, a Muslim minority group; the efforts to close off elections to opposition candidates; and attacks on press freedoms. Re-imposing sanctions must remain an option.

Link: http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/29/the-economic-value-of-treating-workers-humanely/?