Tuesday, June 27, 2017
The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

Government plans legal revamp to tap US market

The government will beef up legal protection of labour rights and intellectual property to ensure exports from Myanmar are eligible for duty-free access to the US market by the end of this year, officials at the Ministry of Commerce said.

Fish-processing plants that can meet international health and safety standards, like the one above, are expected to benefit from Myanmar’s inclusion in the US’s GSP program. (Staff/The Myanmar Times)Fish-processing plants that can meet international health and safety standards, like the one above, are expected to benefit from Myanmar’s inclusion in the US’s GSP program. (Staff/The Myanmar Times)

Although they are confident Myanmar will be reinstated in Washington’s generalised system of preferences (GSP) – which grants duty-free access to thousands of imported goods from developing countries – they said that questions about labour rights and protection of intellectual property had been raised again on June 4 at a public hearing in Washington on Myanmar’s inclusion in the GSP.

The officials stressed, however, that new legislation establishing a minimum wage and standards for occupational health and safety will be debated at the next session of parliament, as will new copyright legislation.

Pyithu Hluttaw representative U Aye Mauk said draft legislation for an intellectual property law will be submitted to the hluttaw when it reconvenes on June 25. U Aye Mauk, who is also secretary of the lower house’s planning and financial development committee, said he hopes the legislation will be enacted within two months. The committee has received advice from international bodies, including NGOs, to draft the legislation, he added.

The World Intellectual Property Organization has been meeting with officials from the Ministry of Science and Technology to discuss the legislation, a WIPO regional program officer said.

U Ye Min Than said five officials drafting the legislation discussed it with WIPO staff at its headquarters in Geneva in early March. WIPO has also sent written comments on the draft legislation and held meetings with officials in the capital, U Ye Min Than said.

The government will also receive input from the group that represents copyright-based industries in the US, including the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America.

The International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) told the June hearing in Washington that it will be “weighing into” Nay Pyi Taw’s effort to modernise its copyright law. It said, however, that it supports Myanmar’s bid for GSP benefits because it is “one avenue to protect the interests of US copyright owners around the world”. Currently, Myanmar has a “91-year-old, colonial-era copyright law that is largely ignored”, it said.

Diplomats from Western embassies in Yangon are optimistic that Myanmar will be included in the GSP, with several stating that Washington would not have begun the process if it did not expect to reinstate Myanmar this year.

Washington suspended Myanmar from its GSP program in 1989 due to violations of labour rights, but began easing sanctions subsequently imposed on Myanmar following the political and economic reforms introduced by the government of President Thein Sein over the past two years.

On May 27 Washington and Nay Pyi Taw announcing a landmark Trade and Investment Framework Agreement.

The largest federation of trade unions in the US is calling, however, for GSP benefits to be contingent on Nay Pyi Taw ensuring that laws protecting freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are enforced.

In a written petition submitted to the June 4 public hearing in Washington, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations also described Myanmar’s efforts to improve workers’ rights as “tentative”, citing – among other factors – reports that some employers are refusing to submit to arbitration to settle disputes with workers despite being required to do so by the Settlement of Disputes Law passed in April last year.

Some American business associations are also calling for reciprocal market access. The National Pork Producers Council, for example, said Myanmar should not be granted GSP benefits until it fully opens its market to imports of US pork.

However, the Retail Leaders Association – which says its members have a combined US$1.5 trillion in annual sales – said that granting GSP benefits “helps make US manufacturers more competitive and allows retailers to provide a variety of consumer goods at more affordable prices”.

“Tens of thousands of US jobs depend on the GSP program,” it added.

Commerce ministry deputy director general U Aung Soe, who attended the hearing in Washington, said it left him feeling positive about the bid for GSP benefits.

Advocacy groups Earth Rights International, the US Campaign for Burma and the Burma Fund questioned the appropriateness of giving GSP benefits to Myanmar, but business associations were supportive, he said.