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Unocal Agrees To Settle Forced Labor Suit Over Burma Oil Pipeline

by Marwaan Macan-Markar

Forced Labor Still Common In Burma, Despite Junta's Vow

(IPS) BANGKOK -- Burma's military regime faces the prospect of finally paying a price for its alleged practice of forced labor.

Rangoon's adversary is the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Geneva-based UN agency that has put the Burmese generals on notice that they could be hit by harsh sanctions in March 2005 if forced labor is still prevalent.

The ILO says it has reports that this form of human rights violations continues unabated even after Rangoon assured the ILO it would halt the practice.

"The forced labor situation has changed little," Kari Tapiola, ILO's executive director, told IPS. "We have been able to see some improvement in the central parts of the country but not where forced labor is used by the army."

And the ILO is not impressed by the statements and policies made by Rangoon, including orders "against the use of forced labor" and measures through committees to implement an ILO convention against such abuse.

"On the ground, however, we see little change," Tapiola asserted. "Complaints on the use of forced labor have been transmitted to the authorities but generally no proof has been found (of change). This certainly does not give a lot of credibility to the system."

The ILO's current decision to crack the whip on Rangoon comes as human rights and labor rights groups celebrate a significant victory in the battle against forced labor in that country.

This week, the U.S. oil company Unocal agreed to compensate victims from Burma's Karen ethnic community for the abuse they were allegedly subject to when it was building a natural gas pipeline in Southeastern Burma.

"It is a victory for the Karen victims," Ka Hsaw Wa, who launched a campaign in the mid-1990s to seek justice for those who suffered during the pipeline's construction, told IPS. "This should encourage human rights groups to continue their fight to expose the violations in Burma."

The lawsuits against Unocal were filed in a U.S. court by 14 anonymous villagers with the help of Western rights groups. They argued that the multinational corporation should be held liable for the string of abuses they said villagers in the Karen community were subject during the $1.2 billion pipeline's construction.

The Burmese soldiers, who were the main perpetrators of the abuse, had detained, tortured, murdered and raped villagers in the area where the pipeline was being built -- in addition to the practice of forced labor, according to the villagers.

Unocal, however, has kept denying that such rights violations took place.

But this high-profile case, which began in 1996, has done little to stop the junta from subjecting Karen villagers to forced labor. "It still continues in the Karen areas," said Ka Hsaw Wa.

The prospect of Rangoon being subjected to harsh -- and no doubt embarrassing -- sanctions is gathering momentum in the wake of the message that flowed out of the ILO at the conclusion of the 291st session of its governing body last month.

ILO's governing body, which is made up of representatives from workers, employers and governments, declared that "a reactivation of the measures adopted under Article 33 of the ILO Constitution would have already been justified now."

Article 33 provides the ILO to impose tough sanctions against countries that perpetuate the practice of forced labor. For Burma, it would mean economic divestment and bans by international trade unions, UN agencies and ILO members from doing business with Burma.

In 2000, the ILO took the unprecedented decision of implementing Article 33, which consequently pushed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the military government is officially known, to pursue reform. That included a legal order to ban forced labor.

Following such pressure, the SPDC agreed in May 2003 to implement a joint plan of action with the UN agency to eradicate forced labor. But that plan was short-lived due to an attack on Burma's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and members of her party by thugs linked to the junta.

The ILO estimates that over 800,000 people in Burma are being subject to forced labor with little or no pay. This includes cleaning roads, carrying heavy loads for the army, constructing military buildings and also working on agriculture and infrastructure projects.

In addition, the military government, which came into power following a coup in 1962, runs over 50 camps across the country where prisoners, including women and young girls, are pressured into forced labor, say human rights groups.

The Unocal settlement should give foreign companies doing business in Burma a reason to pause, particularly if their investments are profiting from forced labor, Carol Ramsley of EarthRights International, the non-governmental group that helped the 14 Karen villagers take on the oil giant, told IPS.

"Investors in Burma must take note of conducting business with the junta in the future," she said. "This week's settlement proved that big corporations can be held accountable."

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Albion Monitor December 15, 2004 (

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