• Radio Free Asia

Myanmar Labor Groups Urge EU Not to Drop Crucial Trade Preferences

Myanmar labor organizations urged visiting European Union delegates on Monday to reconsider the possible withdrawal of trade preferences that allow the developing country tariff-free access to the bloc, under threat from Brussels in response to alleged ethnic cleansing of ethnic Rohingya during a 2017 military campaign.

The EU delegation met with representatives from the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar (CTUM), the Myanmar Infrastructure, Craft and Service (MICS) organizations, and the Agriculture and Farmers Federation of Myanmar (AFFM) in the commercial hub Yangon to discuss the preferential trade arrangement.

The EU dispatched the high-level mission comprised of the European Commission’s trade arm and the EU’s diplomatic service to Myanmar to investigate human rights violations primarily concerning Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, as well as possible labor rights violations.

The delegation arrived in Myanmar on Oct. 28 and began its work on the ground on Monday.

The mission’s findings will help the EU determine whether to withdraw Myanmar’s Everything But Arms (EBA) status, which gives the country tariff-free access to the European market for all exports except weapons and ammunition.

The EU mission comes on the heels of a blog post earlier this month by Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Trade, in which she indicated that Myanmar’s EBA arrangement was in jeopardy over human rights violations against the Rohingya, as cited in a United Nations fact-finding mission’s report in September.

The report, which describes indiscriminate killings, widespread rape, attacks on children, and village torchings by the Myanmar military during the 2017 crackdown in northern Rakhine state, calls for the prosecution of top military brass for genocide and crimes against humanity.

“The country’s leadership has repeatedly disregarded calls from the EU and the international community to put a stop to this,” Malmström wrote.

Myanmar labor groups appealed to the mission not to withdrawal the EBA arrangement.

“We told them we don’t agree with the EU’s [possible] withdrawal of trade preferences,” said Maung Maung, president of the Myanmar Confederation of Trade Unions. “It would reflect badly on Myanmar workers and would be a minus sign for development work in Myanmar.”

Naw Aung Aung, vice president of MICS, said that if the EU withdraws trade preferences from Myanmar, its support for the country’s democratic reform will be “fruitless.”

“That’s why we urged the EU delegations to reconsider it,” he said.

Workers will lose jobs

Hla Maung Shwe, vice president of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), a national NGO representing and safeguarding the interests of Myanmar’s private business sector, noted that the EU doesn’t tax Myanmar garment products under the current system of trade preferences.

Foreign companies, including European firms, have invested heavily in Myanmar’s garment industry, accounting for 75 percent of the sector’s investment, he said.

The EU is also Myanmar’s largest trade partner for garments, accounting for 47 percent of exports in 2017, according to the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA).

“If the EU withdraws trade preferences, it will be difficult to keep those companies investing in our country,” he said. “We have about 500 UNFCCI member factories, and more than 500,000 garment factory workers in Myanmar.”