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Social concerns while EU gets tough on Burma

ASEM must tackle social concerns while EU gets tough on Burma

Brussels - ASEM, the Asia-Europe Meeting (1), needs to introduce a permanent Asia-Europe Dialogue on employment and labour issues into its structure to address the concerns of millions of workers and their trade unions, said the international trade union movement ahead of the biannual ASEM summit in Hanoi (8th - 9th October 2004). Furthermore, the European Union needs to take far stronger action on the issue of Burma to get any real progress on respect for democracy and human rights in that country.

The international trade union movement continues to stress the argument that ASEM leaders' foremost commitment should be to improve the lives of their citizens (

Improvements to the quality of life can only be sustained if the working conditions of their citizens are properly addressed. As part of this, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) have wholeheartedly expressed their support for the German government's proposal (2) which called for ASEM to set up a permanent Asia-Europe Dialogue on employment and labour issues.

Set up 8 years ago, ASEM is still as yet to sufficiently respond to trade union demands for a work programme to tackle key issues including workplace consultation, decent work creation and social dialogue. These issues need to be given as much weight as the trade and investment agenda that ASEM continues to focus on, and by taking a decision to support the German initiative in Hanoi, ASEM could start to tackle that challenge.

Collapsing human rights in Burma is also an issue being re-emphasised by the international trade union movement ahead of the summit. In September 2004, the European Council decided that it would take various measures, for example that it would prohibit EU registered companies from making financing available to certain Burmese state-owned businesses, unless the Burmese government released Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other National League for Democracy (NLD) leaders, allowed the NLD to operate freely; and invited the NLD and other political parties to participate freely in the National Convention. The European Council stipulated that these three conditions must be fulfilled by the start of the ASEM Summit. In its conclusions, the Council stated that the summit would provide the EU with an opportunity to confront Burma with its concerns on the respect for human rights and the urgent need for democratic reform.

However, despite claims made by the Burmese military junta, these three conditions still remain unfulfilled. The ICFTU is insisting that Burma, the subject of a 175- page ICFTU dossier submitted to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) detailing evidence of continuing forced labour, should not attend the ASEM Summit in Hanoi nor become an ASEM member until the country begins to respect basic values of democracy and human rights, including workers' rights.

The ICFTU and ETUC are urging the European Union to take far stronger action ( including a ban on the import into the EU of goods and services from Burma, a comprehensive ban on investing in Burma by all European companies and citizens, and actions to ensure that EU-originated arms are not sold to Burma via third countries. The ICFTU added, "for the pledges by the Burmese junta to be credible, the negotiation process needs to reach a stage beyond the point of no return. We are yet to see any concrete steps towards real respect for democracy and human rights, including workers' rights, in Burma. Until we do, cases including the recent sentencing to death of 3 activists simply for contacting the ILO, incidents of Burmese citizens being forced to act as human minesweepers and a one-party state where democracy is a misnomer will continue to reign in Burma. We all need to play our part in ensuring that real changes are made".

(1) ASEM is the Asia-Europe Meeting, created in 1996 between the then 15 member states of the European Union and 10 countries of the Asia-Pacific region (Brunei, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam).

(2) The German Ministry of Economics and Labour organised the ASEM Employment Conference in Berlin on 1-2 June 2004.

The ICFTU represents over 148 million workers in 234 affiliated organisations in 152 countries and territories. ICFTU is also a member of Global Unions:

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