Beggar-Thy-Neighbor: How Burma Will Take Bangladesh’s Sweatshop Jobs

Should either country be getting new trade benefits? Bangladesh has certainly been doing its best to get kicked out of US favor as of late; beginning in 2009, activists asked that Bangladesh’s trade privileges be revoked for horrendous labor rights abuses, including tragic factory fires, arbitrary detention of labor rights activists and rampant nepotism and corruption in the industry. The recent assassination of a human rights activist even prompted Secretary of State Clinton to openly scold Bangladesh’s Prime Minister on a recent visit. Scoldings notwithstanding, the current Bangladesh government seems hell-bent on making a bad impression internationally; in the past two years, in addition to targeting labor rights activists, it has brought charges against ITS Nobel laureate, Muhamad Yunus; and is now actually turning back some of the world’s most desperate people- the Rohingya from next door Burma – who are fleeing to Bangladesh through cyclones and terrible violence.

The US government, struggling to make the case for continued investment in Bangladesh, has been pushing the Bangladesh government to accept a labor monitoring program, run by the International Labour Organization. The US Department of Labor will have to make a decision regarding this program shortly. The decision may be made for them, however, if the White House decides to grant Burma new access to the US market. Just as market access pulled jobs from China to lower-wage Bangladesh, so, too, may Burma succeed in pulling jobs from Bangladesh- and ironically, at just the time our government is seeking to persuade Bangladesh it is worth investing in better conditions for workers.

Bangladesh has lots of people but not enough land or natural resources, is plagued by regular natural disasters, and is losing its overcrowded land to rising coastal waters, to boot. Bangladesh’s garment manufacturers are perfectly aware that the reason the global apparel brands have stayed so long is that they can’t afford to turn down the unlimited supply of cheap labor. Given new competition with Burma, what incentive can they possibly have to give away this advantage?

Why are the EU and US now showering Burma with rewards? Human rights organizations agree that while some changes have taken place in Burma, most notably the release of political prisoners, many human rights abuses, including endemic forced labor, go unaddressed. To be sure, Aung San Suu Kyi is now an elected official and is touring the world talking to governments about the need to ‘suspend’ sanctions. But all is not yet well.

Even compared to Bangladesh, the investment climate in Burma is horrific and characterized by rampant meddling by the military in all sectors of the economy and continued mass atrocities in the resource-rich ethnic regions. Fully a third of Burma’s population- 20 million people- live in the ethnic minority states, and while cease-fire negotiations with the Burmese government have begun, they are far from concluding. In some states, such as Kachin, there is ongoing violent conflict with the Burmese military. And while we point out Bangladesh’s appalling refusal to accept Rohingya refugees the reason they are fleeing in the first place is that the Burmese government has been allowing pogroms to take place in Arakan State (also, not coincidentally, a resource-rich area), has denied the Rohingya citizenship and indeed Burma’s President Thein Sein is saying they all should be resettled in third countries.

Unlike the young women of Bangladesh, Burma’s young people may have options outside of subsistence farming or migration to the capital, IF these problems were managed. Burma is a land and resource-rich country. Managed properly, its resource-rich economy could sustain a diverse array of employment options in sectors ranging from financial services to commodity processing.

Both countries desperately need legitimate governments and legal systems to protect citizens against human rights abuses; both need transparency and accountability to end the profiteering and corruption by government and military officials and cronies. Current policy will not do this for either country. Burma will just learn that it can get a lot for giving very little, and Bangladesh will look next door and conclude that it may pay to let abuses grow even worse.

Bama Athreya is the executive director of United to End Genocide and an advisor to the International Labor Rights Forum.