Workers Rights

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No forced labour

No-one should be compelled to work, without exception. This is according to two core labour standards of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which aim to eliminate all forms of forced or compulsory labour.

  • ILO Convention on Forced Labour, No.29 (1930) bans all forms of forced or compulsory labour, except for military service or convict labour, or during emergencies such as war, fires and earthquakes.
  • ILO Convention on the Abolition of Forced Labour, No.105 (1957) bans the use of compulsory labour as a means of political coercion or education, to mobilise or discipline a workforce, as a punishment for taking part in a strike, or as a means of discrimination.

Yet still these abhorrent practices continue today. Lack of political will and vested interests in many countries keep millions of people enslaved or entrapped.

Forced or compulsory labour ranges from slavery and debt bondage to trafficking in human beings. The United Nations estimates that there are around 12,3 million bonded labourers around the world. On farms in South Asia and Africa, as well as in certain other industries, millions of men, women, and children are tied to their work through a vicious circle of debt.

"I became bonded after I got married to my husband twenty years ago - his family had been bonded for three generations to the same landlord - they took loans for marriage, for illness, for education... I used to work from 6am in the landlord's house, cleaning, fetching water... Then I would go and work on the farm... cutting, threshing... until 7pm or later. Sometimes I would then go back to the house to clean everything. Only after that could I go home and feed my family. We were not allowed to work for any other landlord.

Leelu Bai, former bonded labourer, Thane District, India

The cross-border trafficking of women and children is also increasing, involving over 800,000 a year around the world. They are traded for prostitution and domestic service, and for work in sweatshops. In the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, agencies working in the field report increased evidence of women from Eastern Europe, Africa and elsewhere being trafficked, with Ireland as their destination or en route to other European countries.

International action against Burma's military rulers

In November 2000, the ILO took the unprecedented step of calling on all governments to take sanctions against the country of Burma, now also called Myanmar. The ILO charged the Burmese military regime with a 'crime against humanity' for its systematic use of forced labour.

Up to two million men, women, children and the elderly are forced to work for the Burmese military. They construct roads, railways, dams and army camps. They act as servants and sentries for army officers. Or they dig fishponds, log timber and farm on land that officers have seized. Porters are saddled with heavy loads and forced-marched through the hills, often in front to detonate mines.

Burma has ratified ILO Conventions on freedom of association and freedom from forced labour, but ignores them. The Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB) is banned and two of its leaders, U Khin Kyaw and U Myo Aung Thant, have been jailed for 17 years and life respectively for their union activities. The FTUB operates in exile from Thailand.

Global Unions has released a database of over 325 foreign companies with business links to Burma. Some prominent companies have withdrawn under international union pressure, such as the French multinational hotel chain Accor. But Global Unions is still adding other firms to the list who are happy to do business with Burma and its vicious junta.

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