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.
party won the 1990 elections with 80% of the vote. The military canceled the
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.
New York Times claims the United States can do little but issue statements of
support for the opposition.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
a key element of the new labor movement is also a more aggressive defense of the
rights of workers abroad.
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.
will never be a more compelling case for using the power of our domestic market
to command respect for workers’ basic human rights abroad.
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.
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.
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
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
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