The Burmese labor force is estimated to be 19.7 million strong and consists of people between the ages of 15 and 59. About 65 percent of the labor force is employed in the agriculture sector. Of the remaining 35 percent, 10 percent is employed in the industrial sector while the remaining 25 percent is employed in a variety of service sectors. The official government unemployment rate for the fiscal year 1997-98 was reported as 7.1 percent.
One serious concern about the Burma labor situation is the reported use of forced labor on public works projects. In November 2000, the International Labor Organization (ILO) concluded that Burmese authorities had not discontinued the practice and advised member nations to review their relations with Burma. In response, Burmese authorities said that they would stop cooperating with the ILO. The government has maintained that the ILO action represented an effort by its member states to exert improper influence on Burma's internal affairs.
According to U.S. sources in Rangoon, the government lessened its dependence on forced labor. Instead, it was using military personnel on some of these projects. Military authorities, however, continue to force civilians to work for them. Many women and children, for instance, have to work as porters for the army.
There are reports of the continued prevalence of child labor in the country. Legally, children must be 13 or above before they can be employed. This and the compulsory education law, however, are not fully enforced. Consequently, a large number of children never enroll in school and many do not complete the primary school course. Therefore, children are frequently employed in many areas, especially in the arts and crafts industries.
Since the military takeover in 1962, the authorities have consistently denied the people their freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association. Also in 1964, the government abolished all trade union organizations. Substituting for independent unions are government-sponsored Regional Workers Councils. In 1985, there were 1.8 million members. Coordinating the work of the regional councils is the central workers organization in Rangoon, formed in 1968. The Central Arbitration Board is given the responsibility to settle major labor disputes but is inactive. Minor labor concerns are addressed by the township level agencies. One labor organization, the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma (FTUB), is an anti-government group that was formed in 1991 by Burmese living in exile.
Working conditions were set forth in a 1964 law called The Law on Fundamental Workers' Rights and the Factories Act of 1951. An abundance of labor and the failure of the government to protect the workers have led to substandard working conditions. The public sector employees follow a 5-day, 35-hour workweek. Employees in the private sector and state enterprises have a 6-day, 44-hour workweek. The law provides for overtime pay. However, these laws cover only a small percentage of the workers. Moreover, the workers are not allowed to organize in unions and bargain collectively. In the public sector industries, the government sets the wages and benefits. The joint sector companies are discouraged from paying their employees more than their counterparts in the public sector.
As of March 2000, all institutions of higher education, with the exception of a military academy and a medical school affiliated with the army, were closed. The middle class is frustrated that their children are not able to get an education. Many Burmese of all classes have fled the country for fear of oppression. Thousands of Burmese refugees remain in camps in Thailand and Bangladesh.