Attempts at holding companies to account ineffectual as growing foreign investment in Myanmar exposes Burmese to ongoing human rights risks
Bobbie Sta. Maria and Irene Pietropaoli
Bobbie Sta. Maria and Irene Pietropaoli are researchers at Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in southeast Asia.
Friday 20 February 2015 14.57 GMT
When Business & Human Rights Resource Centre wrote to over 100 foreign companies investing or operating in Myanmar last year to ask them to publicly disclose details about their activities and human rights commitments, the result was indicative of how the issue of human rights is valued among the companies approached.
To date about a quarter has provided relevant information on their human rights policies and due diligence efforts in Myanmar; another quarter is less engaged, providing only general statements about minimum legal or social responsibility requirements. Almost half has yet to respond at all.
We started the project with the idea that Myanmar’s foreign investors would be well attuned to the business risks of their potential human rights impacts, and thus would readily engage on these issues, at least on paper. There is no shortage of reports on how business activities in Myanmar have been linked to serious rights abuses – including restrictions on freedom of expression, violence, as well as land and labour-related abuses.
Amnesty International, for example, recently issued a report (pdf) alleging that foreign mining companies have profited from – and in some cases colluded with – authorities in serious human rights abuses and illegal activity around the Monywa copper mine complex, formerly operated by Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines (now Turquoise Hill Resources), and now operated by Wanbao, a subsidiary of Chinese arms manufacturer Norinco.
Community and nationwide protests in Myanmar sparked by allegations of land confiscations and environmental harm in connection with the mine led to suspension of operations, violence, and costly and significant reputational harms for the companies involved.
Also recently, around 200 workers protested against a local subsidiary of Total over significant job losses and low compensation in an offshore gas project that has been in operation for more than a decade.
Similar reports come out on a regular basis. Aside from the business risks attached to these allegations, they paint an alarming pattern of businesses harming communities and, in the process, failing to generate the local prosperity the Myanmar government claims to aspire for.
Myanmar was recently named one of the five top countries in the world for cheap labour by the Labor Costs Index, raising alarm among foreign investors about their vulnerability to accusations of exploitative labour practices. As Myanmar opens to the world and foreign companies rush into the largely untapped consumer and labour market, investors need to act responsibly for the benefit of local communities as well as their businesses.
The Myanmar Investment Commission reported a total of $6.62bn (£4.31bn) in foreign direct investment from April to December 2014, almost doubling the total inflows from the previous fiscal year. We designed our Foreign Investment Tracking Project to create a public database on the human rights commitments of the foreign companies pouring in these billions and reaping profits therefrom. We wanted to encourage Myanmar’s foreign investors to publicly engage on rights issues in order to help ensure that stakeholders, especially local people, have access to the information they need to engage companies and, where necessary, hold them to account for their impacts in communities in which they invest or operate.
The 57 responses we’ve received so far are a step forward in corporate human rights transparency in Myanmar and around the world. The responding companies, by what they say or don’t say, open themselves to heightened public scrutiny and open avenues for constructive discussion.
There are also responses that set standards and provide useful guidance, such as adidas Group’s discussion of its extensive stakeholder engagement prior to sourcing from Myanmar and Telenor’s policies on privacy rights and responsible supply chain management. These provide an example for advocates and other businesses to initiate similar efforts, raising the global bar on corporate transparency and disclosure on human rights issues.
But there are hundreds more companies — big and small — that need to be engaged, and the more important work of checking policies against actual practice remains.
Along with civil society allies, we intend to keep pushing human rights issues higher in Myanmar foreign investors’ list of priorities. We plan to do this by persistently confronting these companies with human rights questions until their concerned personnel actually get their heads together to come up with answers. Understanding that these questions are key business concerns and, more importantly, that their answers could have profound effects on the lives of all men, women and children in communities that they harness or exploit for profit.