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U.S., Myanmar Agree to Develop New Labor Rights Initiative

The United States and Myanmar have agreed to develop an initiative designed to promote labor rights and practices in the Southeast Asian nation.

According to a joint statement released by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) Thursday, the initiative will build on Myanmar’s existing reform efforts, including International Labour Organization (ILO)-supported activities, as Myanmar “increases its economic engagement with the world.”

“Its main goals will be to develop a multi-year strategy for labor law reform and capacity building, to implement fundamental labor rights and decent working conditions on the ground, and to foster strong relations between businesses, workers, and the government of Myanmar,” the statement noted.

Over the long term, the initiative is expected to help make Myanmar a viable sourcing and investment option, protect workers’ core rights and create opportunities for businesses in the country by helping them realize internationally recognized labor standards.

Speaking at the 2014 ASEAN-U.S. Business Summit in Yangon, Myanmar Wednesday, Ambassador Michael Froman said, “In Myanmar, in Southeast Asia, and around the world, we have the opportunity to demonstrate the essential connection between economic progress and political liberalization – to recognize the fundamental truth that human dignity demands both freedom from want and freedom from fear.”

He added, “Myanmar has made initial progress in the right direction on issues ranging from the right to organize to the use of forced labor, including children. Over a thousand unions have registered and more are on their way. But significantly more work remains.”

According to Froman, who spent this week discussing the country’s conditions with labor leaders, government officials and businesspeople during the Summit, said Myanmar’s unresolved issues include: how to achieve peaceful and just resolutions of internal conflicts; how to ensure that the Burmese people have the voice they deserve, in the press, at the polls, and in the government; how to secure the full range of human rights and freedoms of a diverse democracy; and how to achieve truly inclusive, environmentally sustainable economic growth.

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With some of these issues, Froman said, progress will be too slow, while with others, it will come more quickly but require “vigilance and persistence” to sustain in the long term.

The United States has been committed to increasing engagement with the Asia-Pacific region, and particularly with the ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) nations, which include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

“Over the last ten years, trade between us [U.S. and ASEAN] just in goods alone has grown by more than 60%, and now supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in our countries. In 2012, we exchanged more than $230 billion in goods and services, and last year, U.S. foreign direct investment in ASEAN countries totaled more than $200 billion,” Froman said. “But this is still only scratching the surface of our collective economic potential.”

ASEAN is the United States’ fourth largest trading partner, and its member countries imported $9.98 billion worth of textiles and apparel to the U.S. in the year to June 2014, up 4.86% from the prior year’s $9.53 billion, according to data from the Office for Textiles and Apparel (OTEXA).

With specific regard to Myanmar, the U.S. has agreed to begin the consultative process to promote labor rights and practices in the country, and the initiative’s development is expected to culminate by the time of the ASEAN Leaders meeting this November.