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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, April 28, 2006

Burma and Forced Factory Labor: No Evidence, No Allegations

In a recent post I recommended an article in the Journal of Libertarian Studies (Summer 2005) on forced labor in Third World sweatshops run by multinational corporations. After checking the sources on the central part of the article, and other investigation, I now must offer a caution about the article.

The article makes the entirely valid point that where forced labor is used to staff sweatshops owned by multinational corporations, free-market advocates should not scoff at leftist protests about the poor conditions by saying, "It must be the workers' best option." But that opens the question: are there countries where this happens? The author, Ellennita Muetze Hellmer, says there are. The centerpiece of her article is Burma, ruled by an oppressive military junta (which renamed the country Myanmar). She writes, "The truth is that the military regime of Burma abducts its own citizens and forces them to work in factories owned by multinational corporations" (38-39). In the next paragraph, she writes, "[T]he government is often paid by the multinational firms in order to utilize the labor of the prisoners" (emphasis in the original).

I had intended to write an article on this subject, favorably citing and quoting Hellmer's article. While drafting it, I decided to go to her referenced sources to look for quotations. I was disappointed. The sources are "Drugs and Slavery in Myanmar" in The Economist (subscription site), June 22, 2000 (the article erroneously has the date as June 24, 2000), and "Myanmar: The Administration of Justice - Grave and Abiding Concerns," a report by Amnesty International.

The problem is that neither of these sources contains allegations that multinational companies use forced labor provided by the government in their factories. In both cases, forced labor is discussed but only in reference to military infrastructure projects, such as roads and military camps, and other such government projects. (Unfortunately, this seems to be a practice inherited from the former British colonial administration.)

The Economist states:
The regime, which ten years ago ignored an unambiguous election victory by the opposition National League for Democracy, has arranged ceasefires with most of the rebel ethnic groups, but keeps control only by using slaves to build defences, roads and bridges. Locals are forced to clear land, act as porters for the army and provide food and housing. Refugees claim that forced labourers are even made to march along roads that have been mined by rebels.
Amnesty International writes:
Other ongoing concerns in Myanmar [aside from political imprisonment] include forced labour of civilians by the military....
There is nothing in the report about multinational corporation factories or other private-sector use of forced labor. Not satisfied with this, I Googled several combinations of terms designed to find any article whatsoever about Hellmer's allegation. Nothing came up. Nothing.

The article is highly misleading. For example, this:
The truth is that the military regime of Burma abducts its own citizens and forces them to work in factories owned by multinational corporations. Often, the laborers are political dissidents or petty thieves, but the criminality requirement is a mere formality. Many innocent people, as well, are forced to work in the factories as well, bringing the number of slaves to a total of 800,000 (The Economist 2000). [Emphasis added.]
If you go to The Economist article, the only thing you'll find substantiated is the 800,000 figure. As already pointed out, it says nothing about compulsory factory work.

Another Hellmer source, the Clean Clothes Campaign, states on its website:
In July 1998, the ILO [International Labor Office] produced an authoritative report on forced labor in Burma, calling the system "a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation of large sections of the population inhabiting Myanmar [Burma] by the Government, military and other public officers."
A check of the ILO site turned up no allegations that people were forced to work in factories operated by multinational corporations.

I took this a step further: I e-mailed the Free Burma Coalition (FBC) to see what it knew about the issue. I received responses from FBC's founder, Zarni; Derek Tonkin, a retired British diplomat who held posts in Southeast Asia; and Robert Taylor, visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore, and former professor of politics at the School of Orient and African Studies, University of London. Zarni had referred Tonkin and Taylor to me. Their responses are interesting.

Tonkin writes:
I know of no reports of forced labour in manufacturing enterprises in Burma, whether locally or internationally owned. The manufacturing sector is not all that significant in Burma, and there has never been any difficulty in recruiting labour at local market rates, which are admittedly low. . . . Forced labour in Central Burma has generally been connected with road-building and clearance schemes for which heavy machinery is not available. This compulsory labour is not all that different from what I have seen in Vietnam, but in Burma it is run by the Army, who tend to be heartless and autocratic, whereas in Vietnam it is run by the local authorities and Party organisations as communal schemes. On the whole, there is little or no forced labour on construction sites (hotels, factory buildings, schools, hospitals etc) because unskilled labour is not generally required and could be more trouble than it is worth. Forced labour in the border areas is much more widespread and involves portering for the army and compulsory provision of food supplies - to be frank, anything which the local army commander feels he needs to survive, as he is expected to live off the land and has no budget for local expenses.
Tonkin sent a link to the latest ILO Governing Council report (March 2006). It says nothing about forced factory labor or other work for private-sector interests.

In a second e-mail Tonkin said:
I have no evidence to support the allegation in the [Hellmer] report at reference that: "The truth is that the military regime of Burma abducts its own citizens and forces them to work in factories owned by multinational corporations". I believe this allegation to be totally without foundation.
Zarni's e-mail was similar to Tonkin's:
There were - and still are - news reports about the use of forced labor in the country, especially in military operations and infrastructure projects, to our concern, to the best of our knowledge, there have been no single report or allegation about the use of forced labor in [manufacturing] sector run by multinationals.
I should note that due to a boycott campaign conducted by FBC and others concerned about forced labor, many western companies stopped buying products, such as apparel, from Burma. FBC has since changed its strategy from isolation of Burma to engagement. See its website for details.

Taylor's e-mail states:
I have never heard the allegation that multi-nationals used forced labour in Myanmar. The allegation is normally made that the army uses forced labour as porters and as free labour for its camps. This may be true to some extent but then in 1916 the United States Supreme Court said that such practices were constitutional in lieu of taxation. Until 1999 the law in Myanmar, inherited from the British via the 1907 Village Act, made such practices legal. However, I do not believe, based on conversations with foreign investors in Myanmar, that forced labour was used by any foreign firm in any of their construction projects.
Let me add a couple of points in conclusion. First, I wish in no way to go easy on the Burmese military junta. It forbids workers from organizing and jails its political opponents, forcing them to work. Second, forced labor on the government's civil and military infrastructure is abominable. But, third, this is not the same issue as forced labor in multinational corporation sweatshops. Were that to occur, the companies involved would deserve the harshest criticism and recriminations such as boycotts. But there seems to be no evidence that it occurs in Burma. Finally, forced labor in factories is a separate issue from a government's closing off virtually all opportunities to people but factory work. I have not seen this alleged in Burma, but we know it has happened in the past through land expropriation and tax policy elsewhere. (See the British colonial record in Africa, for example.) Here the issue is forced work in western-owned factories. Not only is there no reported evidence that it occurs, there aren't even allegations it has occurred.

(Burma is not the only case discussed in the paper. The other examples of forced labor are Indonesia gold mining in recent times and the Central American coffee-growing industry in the nineteenth century. I have not looked into those cases.)


Russell Hanneken said...

Interesting. Thanks for taking the time to look into Hellmer's claims. Have you contacted Hellmer about this? I'm curious to hear what she has to say.

Sheldon Richman said...

I made an effort to find the author's e-mail address, but came up empty.

Anonymous said...

Good article, I'm impressed with the research you put into this. I'm all for criticizing the junta at every turn, but the truth of the matter is terrible enough, and allegations which are unsupported will only hurt our efforts to raise awareness of the situation.

I just thought I'd add a little bit about forced labor that does occur. It also occurs under the context of farming, whereby the government confiscates land for plantations and then forces nearby farmers to either come and work the land for a period of time, or as full-time 'contract farmers'. The army requires a certain amount of the crop to be handed over at a pre-determined price, which is significantly below the market rate.

Ultimately, the government makes unreasonable demands for crop yields or enforces bad practices which significantly reduce the yields. On top of which, payments for the contract labor or the rice they purchase are often not given. Many farmers actually have to buy paddy rice from the market to fill their quota to be handed over. Its not exactly the same as the forced labor for infrastructure which is more well-known, but the effects are more subtle and far-reaching. Arakan State in the west consistently faces rice shortages in many areas because of these practices, and the junta has forbidden the transport of rice on top of it.

The central government gives local battalions quite a lot of free reign to produce their own revenue, even going so far as to not pay the battalions enough to survive on, so the forced labor, forced 'buying' of agricultural quotas, and the confiscation of businesses tends to vary in different areas. One village actually saw all of its successful brick kiln businesses confiscated by the local battalion, and then the villagers were forced to donate so many hours working at the kiln - including the previous owners, who had no other means of survival.

Forced labor in Burma should definitely stand as a caution to any corporation looking to invest there, though, even if it doesn't involve the kidnapping alleged by Hellmer.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Richman,

Thank you for contacting me about these discrepancies you found in my research. Such speaks highly of your character, and I greatly appreciate it. I appreciate your efforts to 1) follow up on this research and 2) thoroughly investigate all claims.

To be perfectly honest, I wrote this article about two years ago, and am having a difficult time recalling the specifics of each claim made. It should, however, be a simple thing to check my citations and clarify everything, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Admittedly, I wrote this while an undergrad and thus quite lacking in the research skills that I have since acquired. While it pains me to say that (and it is a rather meager attempt at an explanation for a term paper that I sought publication for), it is the truth. However, I would like to address some of your points, as I am glad that you are willing to look into this. So let’s get to the bottom of this…

The allegation of concern came from the Clean Clothes Campaign. However, the article that is cited in the reference list really isn’t the same article I remember reading. This is only a call to sign a protest letter or something, and I don’t think that I have ever seen it before (a situation that is boggling my mind). However, this is the same article that I cite in the page proofs JLS sent me before publication, so I can only assume that it is what I originally wrote. Here is the article that I remember initially reading, which induced me to investigate the situation further:


It was an on-line article, as such it is the sort of source I would be very reluctant to cite again. Upon a more careful reading, they seem to be using the term “slave labor” loosely. Here is the title of the article:

“Why Is the NBA Exploiting 7-cent-an-hour & Slave Labor
And Supporting Brutal Military Dictators and Drug Lords in Burma?”

Upon further reading, it appears that they abandon the term slave labor for “slave labor conditions,” which is hardly the same thing, at least from a…uh…logical perspective.
It seems then, that I may have read a bit of incendiary press from the far left which indicated but did not exactly state that workers were forced to labor in the factories. Then I read other more credible reports of forced labor for military and public works projects, the same which you point to. I guess I conflated the two by not reading carefully enough.


“The truth is that the military regime of Burma abducts its own citizens and forces them to work in factories owned by multinational corporations. Often, the laborers are political dissidents or petty thieves, but the criminality requirement is a mere formality. Many innocent people, as well, are forced to work in the factories as well, bringing the number of slaves to a total of 800,000 (The Economist 2000). [Emphasis added.]
If you go to The Economist article, the only thing you'll find substantiated is the 800,000 figure. As already pointed out, it says nothing about compulsory factory work.”

The citation may only be for the number 800,000. I don’t have a subscription to their site, so I haven’t gone back to reference the article, but I’ll take your word for it. If that is the case, then it is a sloppy citation. It is indeed quite odd to make an outrageous claim that should be supported by hard evidence and then cite a number that is of far less concern. I also seem to remember the Economist article also claiming that “the criminality requirement” is “a mere formality.” I assume now that they are referring to those forced to labor on military projects.

Either way, I wouldn’t want to discourage you from continuing in you research, but you certainly wouldn’t want to cite my article if you were to write on this. So here are a few things I have found while today trying to address your criticism.
In 1992, the American oil company Unocal Corporation embarked on a joint venture with the Burmese military regime and the French oil company, Total, to construct an oil pipeline in Burma. Known as the Yadana Project, this project involved the forced labor of thousands of Burmese villagers. After Unocal and its partners signed the offshore gas project with the Burmese government, an area that used to have only three military battalions expanded to ten. This increased military presence in a place without infrastructure resulted in the military forcing local people to carry equipment for the troops surveying the project. The military also forced people to build the barracks, compounds, fences, and roads that it needed to provide security for the project. When questioned, Unocal claimed that the human rights violations were committed by the Burmese military and not by the company. In reality, these violations would never have occurred if Unocal had not first initiated this project with the brutal military regime.

There is certainly no shortage of troubling information on the Burmese government and its relationship to multinational corporations.

Just to clarify a few points: In my article, I never say that the Indonesian government forces citizens to work the Freeport McMoran mines. What I did say is that the land was unjustly confiscated by the gold company. An agreement was later made to sell it, but I address that issue as well in the article (in a footnote). This was an attempt to draw a link between the government backed-theft of land from indigenous inhabitants and the sort of forced labor that occurred in Central America, which I describe later in the article. Most of the claims concerning Central America are taken from Booth and Walker, who are pretty heavy Dependency theorists. However, as far as I know there has been little challenge to the claims that they make.

Let me get back to you on this, because there are some other things that I would like to address that have little to do with my article. Either way, I hope this is a sufficient statement on that charge.

Anonymous said...

Richman: 1
Hellmer: 0

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the intellegent feedback, but I don't know that scoring points is the objective here.

Just wanted to point out that I directly quote another source above but when I copied the text from word it didn't keep the formatting. This part: "In 1992, the American Oil company...these violations would never have occurred if Unocal had not first initiated this project with the brutal military regime." It is from the article attached to the URL below it.

Kevin Carson said...


Since Sheldon was originally quite receptive to the article (and is still, I would guess, sympathetic to its general point), I don't think the situation is quite as adversarial as you imply.

Ms. Hellmer,

I'm glad to hear your feedback on this. I've been bitten in the, um, hindquarters by poor fact-checking myself, so I can sympathize. It's a shame that this cast a shadow on the central point of your article, which I think is a sound one: that the vulgar libertarian "best available alternative" argument is flawed, given the role of governments in collusion with sweatshop employers, in limiting the range of "available alternatives."

Anonymous said...

Well, it isn't adversarial, but it is certainly of concern, as it is a published lie.

Regarding sweatshops limiting the means of available alternatives, I think that you could say more about that, at least as far as Burma is concerned. If citizens are being forced to work on projects to develop the country's infrastructure (especially in the case of the pipeline--not that I am going to fly off the handle about that piece of internet information either) then there is more of an explicit link between the global economy and slavery in Burma. Of course, this could be described as compulsory military service, which most countries have to some degree (and it is abomidable in every case). So, if you were to say, boycott goods from every country that engaged in compulsory military service, you would be in quite a jam. But you could make a value judgement and say that the situation in Burma is especially dire, and as such urge stores to not carry goods manufactured there.
I think that the government limits the means of available alternatives everywhere, so we wouldn't want to get into that. I think that what is of concern are cases in which you can make a direct link between force and theft to production for the global economy. As far as I know, the case still stands historically when you talk about Central American coffee.
Either way, I agree with the points against vulgar libertarianism. It seems strange to me to scream to the heavens about the lack of a free market and then assume that a free market is in play when you judge the actions and working conditions of others.
The question, I guess, goes back to activism. Should a libertarian join an anti-sweatshop campaign if they are convinced that the situation in the country in question is sufficient to merit an outcry from a libertarian perspective?

Anonymous said...


I don't think that there is a question about the kidnapping involved in Burma. Most of what I just read to day seemed to imply that people are taken by force from their homes to work on military projects.
The issue is whether or not they are directly forced by the government to work in the factories owned by multinational corporations.

Sheldon Richman said...

There should be no question of my position on Ms. Hellmer's thesis: where there is force involved, even indirect, one cannot make the "best available option" argument about sweatshops. That most libertarians seem oblivious to this point justifies its frequent repetition.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Hellmer,

I know the article wasn't questioning the reality of forced labor, just the nature of it in regards to multi-nationals. I simply wanted to add a bit of additional information.

Most of what you read is concerning forced labor on military infrastructure and portering. But there are other aspects of it that I think would or should have a greater impact on decisions about buying from, or investing there.

I was just pointing out that the way the military works is, the central junta has given directives to all its battalions to earn their own money - they then cut their funding so soldiers and officers are forced to focus on earning revenue over other military duties. Battalions in different areas undertake different activities, but it not infrequently involves hostile takeovers of private business and forced paid labor - for which payment rarely comes.

I was aware that there have been no allegations of forced labor in multi-national corporations, but such does occur in military owned businesses, whether plantations, brick-kilns or otherwise. Foreigners investing in Burma are obligated to have a Burmese partner, often the government or one with ties to the government. So, again, I was just adding a bit of food for thought as far as how the military operates as it relates to business outside of infrastructure development.

Anonymous said...

Since we are getting into technical detail, it's worth clarifying the technical differences between slavery and other forms of forced labour. They differ in their burdens, and in fact slavery isn't even the worst. So here's some history and analysis.

First off, slavery generally means chattel slavery, in which the slave is transferrable property. It arose out of domestic slavery, in which the slave was property but generally involved in a household indefinitely, with all the benefits - comparatively speaking - of paternalism, a bit like a family pet or work animal (see the bits of the Old Testament that cover this).

Slavery was generally a better fate than being a slaughtered prisoner, in any event. Indeed, in many times and places being a slave with a specialised skill was a better lifestyle (apart from the unfreedom) than being an oppressed peasant, partly from being a valuable asset and partly from the tax base being spread onto the peasants.

With things like the Byzantine Kapnikon or "hearth tax", for instance, taxes were spread according to a Tragedy of the Commons mechanism which helped concentrate the tax base and made it cheaper to raise taxes. But that meant that the peasants' own costs didn't return to the tax gatherers, unlike the costs of overworking a slave.

(This was different from the hearth tax in France that was also tried in Britain, both because it didn't try to behave like a poll tax and because it was introduced as an improvement over an earlier poll tax.)

In Denmark until quite late, peasants had to take unfair contracts as tenant farmers or risk being singled out for conscription; that was for long periods, and the local aristocracy had the magistrates' positions that let them pick out troublemakers for the army (people couldn't flee to the towns, since that was forbidden to peasants below the age of forty and those older had already settled down).

That was forced labour in a large sense, but each tenant knew that he could in theory have held out - not everyone was needed for selective long-term conscription. It had a numbing effect; curiously the system was slowly reformed away by top down pressure, wisely avoiding revolutionary extremes and tyrannical inefficiencies. But that sort of wisdom was rare.

So peasants were often oppressed via harsh taxes or rents or whatever. However in many times and places there were other means, like the corvee ("robotnik" in Slav countries - and remember that "slave" comes from "Slav"). That meant forced labour, generally on roads; in some countries, particularly in colonies, it was actually paid but at a low rate.

However the corvee was also a money raiser, since people could buy themselves out or find substitutes, as they could for the selective long-service conscription prevalent in many countries in moderately recent historical times. There was actually an advantage for the poor over cash taxes, since nobody could be made bankrupt and forced off land if cash poor, since the work burden left enough time for subsistence farming.

The British used cash taxes in the form of poll taxes or hut taxes to mobilise labour in colonies. If people couldn't pay, they could work it off in government labour (usually on the roads, as with the corvee).

By paying them a little for this, the colonial government injected cash into the local economies at the same time as the taxes gave people an incentive to find more efficient wage work than this government work; the low pay kept local cash wages low and made local labour competitive for new capital coming in.

And, of course, it often made sense to deal directly with a chief so he would contract out his own tribesmen as a labour force; but this was only using an existing tribal mechanism to a greater extent than before, not applying anything new.

So we have seen how forced labour could be milder than taxes, how taxes could work better than forced labour, and how slavery could work better than taxes - all depending on how well the harness was placed on the beast that bore it. It could be a lot worse.

That was what the Portuguese did, e.g. in Angola. There, villages had to deliver unpaid contingents of able bodied men to the colonial authorities who were contracted out to plantation managers for cash (no payments to chiefs here). As far as the managers were concerned, they were slaves who could be overworked, since they would be replaced with a fresh batch the next year. Any of the same ones were just as likely to end up with the competition anyway, so there was just no incentive to look after them even as much as slaves.

But in all this there was often a transformative policy, e.g. the way the French excused taxes for natives fluent in French. It wasn't aimed at sweating the natives so much as creating an exploitable cash economy that could be used with less maintenance.

The Dutch did exactly that in the East Indies with their "culture" or "cultivation" system, using a depreciated currency to set up networks of middlemen to handle and process cash crops while requiring a proportion of all village land to be devoted to cash crop production (creating a glut since that was more than they would have done freely). That used no formal forced labour or expropriation at all, just a small initial investment raised by issuing bonds to the Dutch bourgeoisie.

Still, sweating the natives, "faire suer le Burnous", was a general French policy in North Africa, in the nominally independent parts like Tunisia and Morocco as well as in directly ruled Algeria. (By the way, the USA was the last country to end its exploitation arrangements in Morocco - the French spread the wealth a bit so as to create stakeholders for their own colonialism.)

There the French either provided government or supported local regimes, while altering the economy so as to infiltrate and exploit it more cheaply and with less force via "peaceful penetration" as it was called. I am sure that the lesson was not lost on the early Zionist planners unless they were thoroughly incompetent.

So we see that there are lots of ways to skin this particular cat, and lots of different motives for doing it beyond the obvious one of getting something for nothing by way of work.

Anonymous said...

This post has probably gone a bit cold in blogging time, but I thought I'd share a recent article I've come across concerning a worker's strike at a Korean owned factory in Burma.

Korean Sweatshop Workers' Demands Ignored