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Category: Shareholder advocacy

Unions Target New Corporate Investment in Burma

Posted: September 18, 2012   By: Simon Billenness Category: Shareholder advocacy,

Simon Billenness is a former Senior Advisor at the AFL-CIO Office of Investment. He is presently a board member of the US Campaign for Burma, and an independent consultant on human rights and shareholder advocacy, whose clients include the American Federation of Teachers. 

The Burmese regime’s recent partial political and economic reforms have caused trade union pension funds and their allies to renew their shareholder advocacy. 

After just 18 months in office, Burmese President Thein Sein has released many – but not all - prisoners of conscience. He has also led a partial opening up of the political system. Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy, now holds a small number of parliamentary seats won in special elections. The regime has also negotiated with a number of ethnic leaders to end civil conflict with varying sincerity and success. 

Despite these partial and incomplete reforms, Western governments have moved fast to drop many economic sanctions. The U.S. government recently suspended its ban on new investment. This gives leave to U.S. corporations – such as Coca-Cola, ConocoPhillips, PepsiCo, and General Electric – to enter Burma, joining the likes of Chevron, Daewoo, and Total, which never left.  

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has campaigned for decades to end Burma’s use of forced labor and suppression of workers’ rights. In August, the ITUC welcomed the return to Burma of the General Secretary of the ITUC-affiliated Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB), U Maung Maung. This followed the regime’s removal of 2,000 people from its black-list of over 6,000 banned from entering the country.

Union capital funds were among the first shareholders in the early 1990s to question the presence of corporations in Burma. This scrutiny was most acutely focused on energy sector corporations that contributed the most financial and political support to the military regime. For the past four years, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has led a group of religious investors and socially responsible asset management firms, which has filed a shareholder resolution at Chevron. Chevron and Total have been the largest western investors in Burma and their Yadana gas-field provides the regime with its largest financial lifeline.

Most recently, the CWC, AFL-CIO, and Teamsters have joined other investors to organize new shareholder scrutiny and pressure. They are working to develop a clear set of expectations of what corporations in Burma should do to avoid complicity in labor and human rights abuses. The Teamsters expect to re-file their shareholder resolution at Chevron. Other investors may well follow suit, directing their attention on other companies entering Burma.

To find out more about how to become involved in this process, please contact the CWC Secretariat.


(Disclaimer: CWC blog posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the Committee on Workers' Capital or its members. Comments and reflections on featured posts may be sent to the CWC Secretariat.)