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Banning Imports from Burma


Robert Naiman

In

Burma – "Myanmar" to its military regime – Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of

the democracy movement, sits in her car, blocked by the military dictatorship

from meeting her supporters.

Her

party won the 1990 elections with 80% of the vote. The military canceled the

election results.

Among

notorious abusers of human rights, the Burmese military junta stands out. Burma

has been virtually expelled from the International Labor Organization for

continuing the widespread use of forced labor. The State Department reports that

government- directed forced labor in Burma has been accompanied by credible

allegations of rape, forced prostitution, and beatings, often fatal. Many bonded

laborers are children.

The

New York Times claims the United States can do little but issue statements of

support for the opposition.

Yet

the United States has a powerful lever against the Burmese junta: exports to the

United States are a major source of foreign exchange for the junta. This is

money that the regime uses to buy weapons to repress the population. A quarter

of Burma’s export earnings come from the United States. More than four-fifths of

U.S. imports from Burma are clothes. In the last two years, U.S. apparel imports

from Burma have increased by nearly 50 percent a year.

Congress

and the Administration have supported sanctions to force the Burmese regime to

relinquish power – sanctions supported by the democratic opposition in Burma. A

little public pressure could bring about a ban on imports from Burma.

The

labor movement could be decisive. The AFL-CIO has advocated restricting imports

from Burma for years. Now would be a good time to step up the pressure.

A

"new labor movement" means many things. The recent strike at Verizon

showed workers fighting successfully for basic rights. These included the right

to refuse overtime – essential if working people are to enjoy "family

values" – and the right to organize.

But

a key element of the new labor movement is also a more aggressive defense of the

rights of workers abroad.

Thousands

of working people protested in Seattle against the World Trade Organization.

Thousands protested in Washington against the policies of the International

Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Jobs with Justice and the AFL-CIO are

organizing demonstrations in more than forty cities in the United States on

September 26, when the IMF and the World Bank meet in Prague. Trade unionists

are pressuring the department store Kohl’s to make its subcontractors in

Nicaragua pay a living wage and stop firing trade unionists. Pushing for a ban

on imports from Burma is a logical next step.

There

will never be a more compelling case for using the power of our domestic market

to command respect for workers’ basic human rights abroad.

This

would not be a unilateral action. There is an international movement to isolate

the Burmese military dictatorship. Currently, Burmese democracy activists are

campaigning to have the junta expelled from the United Nations General Assembly.

The

charge of "protectionism" would be absurd. No U.S. producer will

benefit from a ban on imports from Burma. Burma’s garment workers earn four

cents an hour, but according to a report by the National Labor Committee, some

workers producing Kathie Lee handbags for Wal-Mart in China make no more than

this – no production is going to shift to the United States as a result of a ban

on imports from Burma.

A

ban on imports from Burma could likely withstand challenge at the WTO. WTO rules

allow restrictions on imports of goods produced by prison labor and to protect

public morals. These exceptions have never been tested. While the WTO has tended

to interpret these exceptions narrowly, that may be changing under public

pressure. The WTO recently upheld a French ban on the import of asbestos – the

first that time this public health exception to free trade rules was

successfully invoked.

Furthermore,

for most countries it would be politically costly to challenge an import ban on

Burmese goods, since their own governments are committed to sanctions against

Burma.

In

any event, it we are ever to move the WTO on the question of workers’ basic

human rights, the limits of the WTO’s power to enforce "free trade"

over human rights will have to be tested. There will never be a better test case

than Burma.

  

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