December 29, 2007

The Current Situation in Burma as Food for Thought

The article I read in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Desperate Burmese Labor in Thailand ” made me think a little more about consumer responsibility and the role of civil society in assisting citizens of countries under political turmoil. It is about Burmese workers who cross the Burma-Thailand border to get a job at a factory that will pay them enough to feed their families back home.

The conflict situation in Burma primarily because of the junta, and the challenging economic state the Burmese find themselves has caused hordes of people in need, mainly women, to immigrate to neighboring Thailand for work under unwanted circumstances. There are cases where child labor has been documented in factories that work for big multinational corporations. To top of the already strained financial situation of the country, the US has announced new, harder sanctions against the Burmese state. If such sanctions are ordered the Burmese are the first who will be affected by the measures (and not the high rank militants of the junta, which are supposedly the main target of the sanctions) since the already poverty stricken citizens will reach desperation.

The article refers to several, quite popular, international lingerie brands such as Top Form, Maiden Form, Fruit of the Loom and Vanity Fair that have their products manufactured in Thailand’s factories, to which illegal Burmese immigrants are frequently employed. Even though companies are obliged under the concept of corporate responsibility, to make sure that production is made under lawful circumstances, the cheap and easy to get labor that immigrates from Burma is too good of a deal to turn down. In plenty instances, some employers just turn a blind eye to the situation in the factories.

According to the WSJ article, an American manager of the Top Form factory in Thailand, Mr. Lurer said that he actually offers his Burmese employees plenty of options, contrary to what they would have to deal with back in Burma. The Burmese nevertheless agree to work under difficult circumstances, without any legal protection, spending years at a time away from their families and many would agree that factory managers are taking advantage of their need.

So I can’t help but wonder; what’s going to happen to all those impoverished people after the country’s already shrunken production and declining exports are not welcome anymore? Will they continue crossing the Moei River to get to Thailand to get a job under difficult circumstances, undocumented, without legal protection? On one hand I strongly believe that forethought should be given to the future of the innocent citizens of the country by both the US and the EU before they proceed with harsh sanctions. On the other hand, I think these people’s lives may be more effectively changed if the conditions of their work are bettered. And that’s where civil society and consumer responsibility come in.

That notion leads me to another; how efficient can consumer pressure be in letting big corporations know that they disagree with their policies and tactics, for example about conforming to International ILO rules, Fair Trade concepts and WTO conventions? Simply by being informed and asking questions about the way a certain item is produced or if it is certified, and by making decisions based on this information can make a great difference. In most occasions, people just think: “how is my decision going to affect the decision-making process of a multinational company?” And to a certain point it might be true. However, a demand that is made on a large-scale can and will have an impact because these companies need to get the pulse of their consumers’ and follow that lead.

So make sure you ask these questions and stay informed. This could apply not only when purchasing a bra and lingerie made in Thailand – because not all Thai factories or all multinationals operate this way, but also when purchasing diamonds (see the Kimberley process certification, Jewelers’ voluntary warranty in the USA for conflict diamonds) or carpets that are weaved by children (

Other resources one may refer to for information on civil society are: a UN project purported to empower the civil society and lead them through holding businesses and governments accountable. Another, where a list of strategies, guidelines and tools are created to offer companies the opportunity to operate by using sustainable practices. And finally, an organization that believes accurate and sound reporting of business makes a great difference in its practices.

Stay in the know and pass it on to your friends, family and colleagues, because they’ll certainly listen if it comes from a familiar person’s mouth. And be sure you read our blog to look for valuable insights and information on issues you can actually have an impact on, just by educating yourself!

1-WSJ, by Andrew Higgins, Myawaddy, Myanmar, Oct 13-14/2007

2-See WSJ, Oct 13-14/2007 edition, “In 2003, it and a ….800 workers and closed.”

3-After the violent attack of the military against the peaceful protest of monks on a previous week, these measures were deemed necessary and, according to Reuters, the US is urging the neighboring India and China as well as the EU, to hold the same stance.

4-WSJ, by Andrew Higgins, Myawaddy, Myanmar, Oct 13-14/2007, page 4, par 3.

5-WSJ, by Andrew Higgins, Myawaddy, Myanmar, Oct 13-14/2007, page 1, 5th paragraph, “Cost-conscious factory bosses across the border, while acting simply out of self-interest, end up providing jobs that both the people of Myanmar and its military government need.”

6-Please refer to websites for further information on the aforementioned concepts or conventions:,,,

This article was written by volunteer blogger, Marina Sapountzoglou. To learn more, please visit or email Marina with your questions at