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FOCUS March 2021 Volume 103

Labor, Social, and Environmental Risks in Small-scale Informal Logging in Northern Burma/Myanmar∗


Previous research in the field of human rights and development has examined how the use of exploited labor – including labor as the result of human trafficking – can contribute to deforestation. There is a parallel field of literature that documents the impact that environmental degradation and deforestation can have on human populations. What both of  these spheres lack, however, is documentation of  the specific patterns of  labor exploitation, human trafficking, and child labor experienced by workers directly involved in forestry and/or adjacent sectors, as well as the means by which deforestation can create vulnerabilities to human trafficking.

In the “Informal Logging in Northern Burma” case study, Verité conducted field research during the 2018-2019 period to assess labor conditions in small-scale informal logging occurring within government-controlled areas of Sagaing Region, Shan State, and Kachin State.

Worker Demographics

The formal forestry sector employs approximately 34,000 people, but this estimate does not include those working in the informal forestry sector or in companies subcontracted by the Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE).1 Due to the scale of informal logging, its wide geographic variance across multiple states and regions within Burma/Myanmar (especially in ethnic minority states), and a lack of available data,2 there is no comprehensive analysis of demographic information related to gender, age, ethnic group, or state/region of origin of workers in the informal logging sector.

Workers in the informal logging sector appeared to be primarily adult men, although Verité interviews indicated that women and children under eighteen also sometimes participated in the sector, which is further supported by media reports that have described both men and women as involved in illegal logging in villages in Sagaing Region and Mandalay Region.3 Women and children also reportedly participated in forest product collection for fuelwood and charcoal.4

Wood market in Irrawaddy river bank in Mandalay. (Photo: Elena Diego)

All interviewees reported that they worked in teams of between three-five members. A team leader was responsible for supervising the team. Agents or brokers would liaise with the logging team, usually the team leader, and make a request for the amount (in tons) and type of logs they want to buy and agree on a set price. Outside of providing payment to the team leader and information on the volume needed, the agents provided little to no additional management/oversight.

All but one informant reported working with agents or brokers who represented the interests of Chinese businessmen. According to a forest governance expert, selective logging in Sagaing Region (where the majority of interviews took place) is particularly associated with Chinese businesses.5

Summary of Findings

The field research identified a number of serious labor rights abuses in the informal logging of teak and rosewood varieties. Most significantly, the research identified high incidences of labor done by children under eighteen years of age, including worst forms of child labor. All workers interviewed by Verité reported having witnessed children under eighteen years of age employed in informal logging on at least two occasions. Verité believes this type of employment constitutes the worst forms of child labor as it meets the International Labor Organization (ILO) definition for “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.”6

Verité field research identified the following concerns related to labor conditions:

  • Children under eighteen years of age participating in hazardous tasks such as using chainsaws to fell trees – Multiple worker interviewees reported witnessing children under eighteen years of age operating chainsaws, as well as children involved in hazardous tasks such as carrying heavy loads and working in extreme weather;
  • Children under eighteen years of age using “yaba” (methamphetamine) and/or heroin while present at logging camp sites – Several interviewees noted that drug use is so severe that it can shorten life expectancy of children involved in the logging sector;
  • High incidences of injuries and occasional fatalities while working in the informal logging sector – The majority of informants witnessed accidents which resulted in severe injuries, such as those requiring the amputation of limbs, or death. Interviewees reported that they conducted logging activities without any protective equipment such as helmets, utility uniforms, safety glasses, or work boots;
  • Workers and their families are unlikely to receive financial compensation if the worker is injured or killed – Among workers interviewed who had witnessed accidents, the majority reported that victims or their families received no compensation. The illicit nature of the work leaves workers and their families with few avenues for recourse.

Verité field research found that workers were driven to logging by a variety of economic factors including lack of viable livelihood options, and in part contribute to environmental degradation and associated impacts, which limits the ability of surrounding communities to access forest products and benefit from protective functions of the forests. Workers interviewed by Verité stated that they relied on forests for their daily income and for additional food for their families. In Katha (Sagaing) and Htigyaing (Sagaing) Townships, where the majority of Verité interviews took place, overlogging (particularly in the 1990s and 2000s) has played a strong role in rapid deforestation, which has had effects on the livelihoods of communities.7

Huge teak logs stacked beside the Chindwin River, Monywa, 
(Photo: Ron Emmons, 2014)

Environmental activists interviewed by Verité from Htigyaing, Kawlinn, and Katha (all in Sagaing Region) noted productive uses of the forests for firewood, bamboo, bamboo shoots, orchids (plants), and small-scale hunting, among others. In the past, communities in and around these areas could acquire forest products more easily without significant investment.

Now, however, it is difficult to access these products without traveling far distances. According to the stakeholders interviewed, there is a general sentiment among communities that life is more difficult than in the past due to lost access to productive forest products and extreme heat and dryness, making it more difficult to farm.8

Environmental activists contend that environmental factors play at least a role in the migration of community members to other forest areas, as well as domestically and abroad for work opportunities.

Some logger interviewees also noted instances of community members migrating abroad for work.

Informants noted that other domestic sectors with labor issues were jade mining in Hpakant, Kachin State and agricultural plantations in Kachin State, including banana plantations in Waingmaw Township.9 Both sectors have been associated with forced labor and general labor exploitation.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Verité’s field research has identified several labor risks related to small-scale informal logging of teak and rosewood varieties. Most significantly, the research identified high incidences of child labor, including incidents of worst forms of child labor. Additionally, worker interviews indicated that workers in informal logging experience high rates of injuries and occasional fatalities, but the illicit nature of their work leaves them and their families with few avenues for recourse. Labor and human rights abuses, including child labor, can persist deep in supply chains, hidden even from social compliance and government enforcement programs. It is vital that the government of Burma/Myanmar, countries importing timber from Burma/Myanmar, and civil society organizations take urgent action to combat these risks.

As outlined in the Government Oversight of Logging and Timber, the complex nature of Burma/Myanmar’s legal timber supply chain and a lack of transparency is a major challenge for ensuring legality,10  meaning that these labor risks could extend into Burma/Myanmar timber’s legal supply chain. Additionally, significant gaps in information exist as to the labor conditions of workers employed by the Myanmar Timber Enterprises (MTE) and companies subcontracted by the MTE (known as “service providers”). It is possible that labor conditions identified in Verité field research are present in the legal Burma/Myanmar timber sector, and more research needs to be conducted to assess labor conditions among government-sanctioned logging operations, especially when considering efforts to bring timber in compliance with forest certification standards. To address labor risks in the forestry sector, Verité presents the following recommendations to the government of Burma/Myanmar and the MTE and subcontracted companies:11

Recommendations for the Government

  • Legislate and implement the inclusion of trafficking in persons, forced labor, child labor, and labor law compliance in timber legality definitions and certification schemes (including the Myanmar Timber Legality Assurance System, or MTLAS), as well as robust monitoring systems for labor law compliance in the forestry sector;
  • Uphold International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions which Burma/Myanmar has ratified, including Convention 29 (Forced Labor), Convention 182 (Worst Forms of Child Labor), and Convention 138 (Minimum Age), as well as national laws related to trafficking in persons, forced labor, and child labor in the forestry sector;
  • Support the prioritization of social risk assessments and human rights in both the formal and informal forestry sector and in the supply chains of timber and wood-based products. This should include a risk assessment on labor conditions associated with the MTE and subcontracted companies;
  • Clarify which Ministries are responsible for the monitoring of labor conditions in both the formal and informal forestry sectors and what systems are in place to assess and address violations of labor law in these sectors;
  • Support strategies which encourage workers and communities in the informal sector to transition to and benefit from the formal forestry sector;
  • Advocate for new funding to encourage the creation of decent work opportunities and improved access to education in areas which employ large numbers of informal logging workers.

Recommendations to the MTE and Subcontracted Companies

  • Develop codes of conduct that include provisions on forced labor, trafficking in persons, child labor, and other labor rights abuses, and that include policies and procedures for assessing and addressing these issues;
  • Provide information which is publicly available on where logging operations take place, the number of workers employed, and information relating to working conditions.

This article is based on one of the case studies in the Verité report entitled Exploring Intersections of Trafficking in Persons Vulnerability and Environmental Degradation in Forestry and Adjacent Sectors - Case Studies on Banana Cultivation and Informal Logging in Northern Burma - Summary of Findings and Recommendations, August 2020, and available at www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Burma-Case-Studies-Full-Report-%E2%80%93-Verit%C3%A9-Forestry.pdf.

For further information, please contact: Verité, 44 Belchertown Rd. Amherst, MA 01002 USA; ph: +1 413.253.9227; e-mail: verite@verite.org; www.verite.org.

1    Third EITI Report for the Fiscal Year 2016/17, Myanmar Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (MEITI), April 2020, page 33, https://myanmareiti.org/sites/myanmareiti.org/files/publication_docs/myanmar_forestry_eiti_final_report_2016-17_final_-_signed.pdf. Accessed on 28 January 2020.
2    Although the 2014 Burma/Myanmar government census revealed that 54.2 percent of all employment in Burma/Myanmar is in the “agriculture, forestry, and fishing sectors,” this information is not further disaggregated to reveal information specific to the forestry sector. Similarly, the 2019 EITI report reveals approximately 886,000 workers employed in the forestry sector, but does not disaggregate data based on gender, age, ethnic group, or state/region of origin.
3    McPherson, Poppy. “Chainsaw injuries in Myanmar tied to illegal logging.” Mongabay Series: Global Forests, Mekong Forest Trade, 12 February 2017, https://news.mongabay.com/2017/02/chain-sawinjuries-in-myanmar-tied-to-illegal-logging/. Accessed on 28 January 2020.
    Wang, Anna and Genevieve Melmaker. “A fight to control chainsaws in Myanmar could turn tide on illegal logging,” Mongabay Series: Global Forests, Mekong Forest Trade, 4 May 2017, https://news.mongabay.com/2017/05/a-fight-to-control-chainsaws-in-myanmar-could-turn-the-tide-on-illegal-logging/. Accessed on 28 January 2020.
    Freudenthal, Emmanual. “Burning down the house: Myanmar’s destructive charcoal trade,” Mongabay Series: Global Forests, Mekong Forest Trade, 26 October 2017, https://news.mongabay.com/2017/10/burningdown-the-house-myanmars-destructive-charcoal-trade/. Accessed on 28 January 2020.
4    Ibid.
5    Interview with Forest Governance Expert, November 2018, Yangon.
6    R190 - Worst Forms of Child Labour Recommendation, 1999 (No.190), NORMLEX, ILO, 1999, www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:R190. Accessed on 25 February 2020.
7    Interviews with environmental activists from Katha, Kawlin, and Htigyaing Townships. November 2018. Interview Location: Htigyaing and Katha.
8    Ibid.
9    Ibid.
10    Myanmar Forest Sector Legality Study, NEPCon, September 2013, https://preferredbynature.org/library/report/myanmar-forest-legality-study. Accessed 25 February 2020.
11    There are also recommendations for countries importing timber and wood-products from Burma/Myanmar and the civil society organizations. See page 118 of the report, Exploring Intersections of Trafficking in Persons Vulnerability and Environmental Degradation in Forestry and Adjacent Sectors - Case Studies on Banana Cultivation and Informal Logging in Northern Burma - Summary of Findings and Recommendations.


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