Pressure mounts on Swiss firm in Myanmar

Burmese pile onto a truck during morning rush hour to get to work Keystone Archive

International companies operating in Myanmar are facing criticism at the annual International Labour Organisation assembly in Geneva, which starts on Tuesday. The Swiss firm, Triumph, has already been targeted for operating in the country which has been slammed for inhumane working practices.

This content was published on June 5, 2001 - 08:29

In Switzerland, trade unions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have stepped up pressure on the garment manufacturer, Triumph, to try to get it to pull out of Myanmar.

It was the first time that the Swiss federation of trade unions had added its voice to the international condemnation of forced labour in Myanmar.

Under the auspices of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the Swiss unions sent a letter to Triumph, as well as to the Swiss Federation of Travel Agencies and around 20 other tour operators.

So far, the results have offered little encouragement, said Colette Nova, of the Swiss federation. She says: "The companies contribute to the regime simply by their presence there."

There are around one million forced labourers in Myanmar, according to the ILO. Last November, the organisation called on countries, companies and unions to adopt sanctions against Yangon to eradicate the practice.

Triumph currently employs around 1,000 workers in its Myanmar factories and says that its employees enjoy above average working conditions.

The firm has refused to withdraw from Myanmar: "We don't believe in sanctions and are in favour of engaging in dialogue with the regime," explained Alois Hirzel, a spokesman for the canton Zurich-based company.

"Textile workers earn on average $8 a month for working a 45 to 60 hour week," said Colette Nova. "It's not difficult to offer more, and there's no way of checking Triumph's claims."

According to the International Federation of Textile Workers, some 16 per cent of Triumph's profits land up in the hands of the military government, which controls the country.

Triumph argues that they have no working relationship with the state: "We are not involved in a 'joint venture' with the regime," it said.

Despite Triumph's refusal to budge, protesters have continued to put pressure on the company. Since February, 4,000 people have joined the Clean Clothes Campaign and sent cards to the Swiss multinational. A further 12,000 people have signed the Swiss-Myanmar Association's petition against forced labour.

In Switzerland, NGOs have also urged tourists and travel agencies not to visit Myanmar until it has given open signals that it is ready to continue along the road to democracy.

Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar was annexed to British India in the 19th century. In 1948, the country became an independent parliamentary democracy.

However, in March 1962, General Ne Win staged a coup, turning Myanmar into a one party state.

swissinfo with agencies

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