A group called the Free Burma Coalition, using pressure tactics like those anti-apartheid activists deployed against U.S. companies doing business in South Africa in the 1980s, has persuaded more than two dozen American corporations over the past 18 months to stop importing goods made in Burma.
Last month, Ames Department Stores Inc. joined the list after being threatened with a holiday boycott. Ames, which has about 300 stores, said the coalition's work "focused our attention on reports on working conditions experienced by many manufacturing employees in Burma."
The U.S. State Department and international organizations have accused Burma's military government, which annulled the results of elections in 1990, of using forced labor.
Other companies promising to stop buying products made in Burma include Jones Apparel Group; Sara Lee Corp.; Family Dollar Stores Inc.; TJX Cos., which operates T.J. Maxx stores; and Nautica International Inc.
Most of the companies involved no longer make their own merchandise and said they had inadvertently placed orders with subcontractors that operated in the Southeast Asian nation of 48 million.
The Free Burma campaign is another illustration of growing activism against alleged labor abuses around the world, which critics view as the dark side of globalization. Students and human rights advocates have rallied to protest low wages in Indonesia, sweatshop conditions in factories in Central America and the U.S. territory of Saipan, and child labor in Pakistan.
Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy won a majority in the 1990 parliamentary elections but who has been held under house arrest by the military regime that renamed the country Myanmar, has urged international companies to stay out of Burma until democracy is restored there. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
A growing number of Burmese exiles are taking up her cause.
"We believe the Burmese regime won't yield until substantial diplomatic and economic pressure is placed on them," said Zar Ni, a Burmese dissident and founder of the Free Burma Coalition, which was formed at the University of Wisconsin in 1995. "We're choosing economic pressure because there is nothing else left to us to do."
Han, second secretary at the Myanmar Embassy in Washington, said it was "really regrettable" that American companies are leaving his country but that workers in the factories would be hurt more than the government. He said reports of forced labor were "totally not true."
The State Department and several international organizations scoff at such denials. The State Department has called the Burmese government "a highly repressive authoritarian military regime widely condemned by the international community for its serious human rights abuses."
"The government restricts worker rights and uses forced labor on a widespread basis," a State Department report said in February. "The use of porters by the army, with attendant mistreatment, illness, and even death for those compelled to serve, remains a common practice. The military authorities continue to force ordinary citizens, including women and children, to 'contribute' their labor, often under harsh working conditions, on construction projects in many parts of the country. Child labor continues to be a serious problem, and the armed forces conscript children as young as 14 to serve as porters in combat areas."
The International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, imposed sanctions on Burma last year. Twice the agency has sent investigators to study the continued use of forced labor.
A report issued last month by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions said that "military and civilian authorities at every level, including the highest echelons of the state, have colluded to deny or disguise" the reality of forced labor.
Despite the international criticism and the activists' efforts, the value of goods imported from Burma to the United States increased to $470 billion in 2000 from $107 billion in 1996, according to the Commerce Department. The growth has leveled off, but imports have not fallen.
Coalition officials attribute that to the sale of merchandise that carries no brand name, which is why it is now concentrating its efforts on getting discount retailers such as Ames and Family Dollar Stores to stop buying products made in Burma.
Willard Workman, senior vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said American companies also are turning away because of widespread corruption, judicial abuses, arbitrary changes in tax laws and the weak protection of intellectual property rights.
"It's a bad place to do business, in addition to having one of the worst labor practices around," Workman said.
The Free Burma Coalition has grown rapidly, though it has a staff of only two and a budget of about $100,000 a year. Money comes from private donations and two foundations, the Merck Family Fund and George Soros's Open Society Institute. It has chapters on more than 50 college campuses nationwide and thousands of student members.
The coalition has also linked with 26 other human rights, religious and labor organizations, including the American Anti-Slavery Group, the Women's Division of the United Methodist Church, the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights and the National Labor Committee.
The campaign on Ames began last May when the coalition and its partners sent letters to the company asking for its cooperation. The coalition began planning a holiday boycott of the chain because the discounter, which is in Chapter 11 reorganization proceedings, did not respond. In December, Ames announced its shift in purchasing policy.
"Ames is our biggest victory yet," said Jeremy Woodrum, a 1999 graduate of American University who works in the coalition's Washington office.
Peggy Carter, vice president of corporate affairs at Sara Lee, said the company -- whose apparel brands include Hanes, Playtex, Champion and Bali -- learned from the activist groups that two licensees that manufacture clothing were making the products in Burma. That was a "violation of its contracts" with the contractors, which prohibit buying goods in places that use forced labor, she said.
"We moved quickly because we were appalled by this," Carter said. She declined to name the manufacturers but said Sara Lee would terminate the contracts if the companies have any more Sara Lee work done in Burma.
"It's not our intent to embarrass anybody," Carter said. "They've assured us they made a mistake. . . . This somehow slipped through the cracks. They understand there will be no second mistake."
© 2002 The Washington Post Company