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.
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.)