UN Labor Body Lifts Myanmar Restrictions in Boost to EU Trade

Myanmar's Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's opposition leader. Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

The United Nations labor organization lifted 13-year-old restrictions on Myanmar that may clear the way for the former dictatorship to sell more goods to the European Union.

The International Labor Organization decided yesterday to remove restrictions on assistance, in place since 1999, that are part of punitive measures the EU has cited to block Myanmar from receiving preferential market access. Myanmar and the ILO agreed on a strategy to eliminate forced labor before 2015, according to a statement yesterday from the Geneva-based organization.

The ILO “has lifted its restrictions on the full participation of Myanmar in its activities and decided to review the progress on the elimination of forced labor in the country next year,” it said in the statement.

Myanmar has passed laws to allow labor unions, criminalize forced labor and create a dispute-resolution mechanism as part of the country’s shift to democracy since President Thein Sein won a 2010 election that ended about five decades of military rule. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose by-election win in April prompted the U.S. and EU to suspend sanctions, is scheduled to address the ILO’s annual conference in Geneva today on her first trip to Europe since 1988.

The EU has excluded Myanmar exporters from its Generalized System of Preferences, known as GSP, which grants 176 developing countries and territories lower duties on goods sold to the bloc. The ban, in place since 1997, cited the ILO’s challenge to Myanmar’s commitment to end forced labor.

‘New Era’

EU foreign ministers said in an April 23 statement they support lifting GSP restrictions on Myanmar “as soon as possible once the required conditions are fulfilled, following the assessment of the International Labor Organization.”

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, exported 127 million euros worth of goods to EU countries in 2010, according to the bloc’s statistics. The EU represented about 2 percent of Myanmar’s trade, the data showed.

Myanmar’s political changes “are concrete and irreversible,” Aung Kyi, a cabinet minister overseeing labor issues, said in a June 7 speech to the ILO in Geneva, according to a transcript of his remarks. “Myanmar is now in new era. As such, Myanmar should be seen from new perspective and encouraged.”

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