End­ing EU perks to hurt hu­man rights

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - News - JA­COB A. CLERE Ja­cob A. Clere is team leader of SMART Myan­mar, an Eu-funded project work­ing on the de­vel­op­ment of so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards in Myan­mar’s gar­ment in­dus­try.

MYAN­MAR gar­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers are fac­ing a nexus point in the de­vel­op­ment of their in­dus­try. I do not envy the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. Their de­ci­sion on whether to with­draw Myan­mar’s trade ben­e­fits with the Euro­pean Union will have ram­i­fi­ca­tions, pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, for years to come. In­deed, the his­tory of man­u­fac­tur­ing in Myan­mar and the tra­jec­tory of in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment in this coun­try will be sig­nif­i­cantly im­pacted. Sim­ply put, the stakes are high.

It is im­por­tant to re­call that the EU has pro­vided Myan­mar with a “trade ben­e­fit”. The EU is not propos­ing sanc­tions. That is a mis­con­cep­tion. The com­mis­sion is in­ves­ti­gat­ing, as they are bound to do un­der the con­di­tions of the ‘Ev­ery­thing But Arms’ (EBA) trade agree­ment, whether hu­man rights in Myan­mar have im­proved or wors­ened dur­ing the pe­riod that EBA priv­i­leges were in ef­fect. It is wrong to point fin­gers and blame the EU for do­ing what they are sup­posed to do ac­cord­ing to the terms of the agree­ment.

The events in Rakhine State are the main rea­son for the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and one can strongly ar­gue in favour of EBA with­drawal on that ba­sis. If that were all that ought to be con­sid­ered, the de­ci­sion would be a sim­ple one. How­ever, one can also make a strong ar­gu­ment that so­cial and hu­man cap­i­tal de­vel­op­ment in the coun­try more broadly has been trending in a very pos­i­tive di­rec­tion, largely as a con­se­quence of Euro­pean and other in­ter­na­tional en­gage­ment with the coun­try.

The Myan­mar gar­ment in­dus­try has been a fre­quent tar­get of me­dia ex­posés. One could be­lieve from the sto­ries that con­di­tions are atro­cious, but is not what we gen­er­ally ob­serve. Our project, SMART Myan­mar, has worked with hun­dreds of gar­ment fac­to­ries since 2013, and we have ob­served a sweep­ing and broadly pos­i­tive shift to­ward bet­ter safety and en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards, bet­ter pay for work­ers, an im­proved le­gal frame­work and, gen­er­ally, the be­gin­nings of what could soon be­come one of the most so­cially and en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble gar­ment in­dus­tries in the world. This pos­i­tive shift has been fu­elled and made pos­si­ble by the re­quire­ments, sup­port and be­hav­iour of Euro­pean buy­ers who have come to Myan­mar be­cause of the EBA trade ben­e­fit.

Such pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ments are in stark con­trast to the Myan­mar gar­ment in­dus­try that United States trade sanc­tions in 2003 left in their wake. At that time, the gar­ment in­dus­try had been boom­ing for a decade with ex­ports flow­ing to the US. The US im­posed to­tal sanc­tions on Myan­mar, nearly killing the in­dus­try. Rather than pro­duc­ing any pos­i­tive out­come, the re­sults of the US sanc­tions were un­de­ni­ably neg­a­tive. The mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment main­tained con­trol of the coun­try. Myan­mar’s in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion cut off the sur­viv­ing gar­ment fac­to­ries from a global trend of im­prov­ing stan­dards, and con­di­tions wors­ened. Child labour, forced labour, abysmal fire safety stan­dards – by 2013, the in­dus­try was in a sorry state, pre­served only by the abil­ity to limp along on the back of ex­ports to Ja­pan and Korea, but un­able to com­ply with the stricter so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards re­quired by Euro­pean and North Amer­i­can buy­ers.

Based on this, we can en­vi­sion the im­pact that EBA with­drawal would have on the in­dus­try and coun­try: wors­en­ing so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards as ex­ports to the EU de­cline, and un­em­ploy­ment, prob­a­bly in the tens of thou­sands, as fac­to­ries close and oth­ers cut pro­duc­tion. There would be much less eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in Myan­mar’s smaller cities, such as Pathein, Kyaukse, and Hpa-an. Un­em­ployed mi­grant work­ers would have lit­tle choice but to re­treat to poverty in their vil­lages or seek jobs in Thai­land, Malaysia and else­where.

In 2003, there was a sig­nif­i­cant uptick in sex traf­fick­ing of un­em­ployed gar­ment work­ers, an al­most in­evitable and tragic out­come when thou­sands of im­pov­er­ished young women with lit­tle ed­u­ca­tion and few skills end up on the street with no other way to sup­port them­selves and their fam­i­lies.

The Myan­mar gar­ment in­dus­try is grow­ing in a very pos­i­tive di­rec­tion. The gen­eral qual­ity of jobs in the in­dus­try are get­ting bet­ter with each pass­ing year, fac­to­ries are safer and more com­fort­able than they were five years ago. Laws on over­time, ma­ter­nity pay, and so­cial se­cu­rity are more con­sis­tently en­forced and fol­lowed by the in­dus­try. Free­dom of as­so­ci­a­tion and so­cial di­a­logue are still rel­a­tively weak, but trade unions and em­ployer or­gan­i­sa­tions are slowly dis­cov­er­ing a path to­ward con­struc­tive in­dus­try di­a­logue. There is still a need for many im­prove­ments, but the over­all tra­jec­tory of the in­dus­try – broadly speak­ing – is pos­i­tive. This has all been made pos­si­ble by the EBA trade ben­e­fit, which is push­ing for­ward pre­cisely the sort of pos­i­tive so­cial and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment it was de­signed to achieve.

The EU is un­der no obli­ga­tion to pre­serve EBA. They would be within their rights to re­move it. Nev­er­the­less, re­mov­ing the trade ben­e­fit will do no one any good and will surely re­sult in great hu­man suf­fer­ing. Ru­ral fam­i­lies would suf­fer and, rather than con­trib­ute to the im­prove­ment of hu­man rights in Myan­mar, it would ac­tu­ally de­tract from the de­vel­op­ment of civil so­ci­ety. I ap­pre­ci­ate the com­mis­sion’s de­sire to act in re­sponse to the hor­ren­dous things that have oc­curred in Rakhine and the back­slid­ing on press free­dom, but I feel this is not the right way. In­ter­na­tional en­gage­ment with the Myan­mar peo­ple is needed, as is more de­vel­op­ment of the coun­try’s civil so­ci­ety and econ­omy.

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