Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Telenor works to address its child labour troubles

Myanmar Times   |   Friday, 22 May 2015

A mobile shop prominently dusplays a Telenor logo near its entrance.
Photo:Aung Htay Hlaing / The Myanmar Times

Telenor Myanmar has again found child and underage labour in its supply chain, violations which have increased as the company expands “aggressively” into new territory, CEO Petter Furberg said yesterday at the firm’s first local sustainability briefing.

The Norwegian telco had reported last August that 19 confirmed and suspected cases of underage labour had been uncovered in its supply chain. And though the company has bent over backward to lift local health and safety standards, progress has sometimes been slow – especially in the face of fresh challenges arising from its rural rollout, according to Mr Furberg.

“Despite really enormous efforts, we see that improvements are coming very slowly,” he said.

“In the areas we’ve been operating for some time, standards are improving, but every time we move into a new area it is like Groundhog Day.
“We start from scratch every time.”

Telenor Myanmar launched at the end of September last year. Its coverage now reaches about half of the country’s population of more than 53 million people. While last year, rollout concentrated on the main cities of Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw and Yangon, its services will go live in the more remote areas in the coming months.

Mr Furberg said that while towers are being built across all Myanmar’s states, Telenor is already present in Mon, Kayin and Kachin, with launches in Kayah and eastern Shan imminent. Coverage will most likely reach Chin and Rakhine states last.

“As we are expanding we will face bigger risks,” Mr Furberg said. “Challenges are not reduced; they’re actually increasing as we’re entering these areas.”
In the past three months, the company has rooted out 17 confirmed and four suspected labour violations, six of which were confirmed child labour cases where workers were between 12 and 14 years old. These figures represent a marked increase over the previous two quarters, which recorded nine and six confirmed underage labour cases – with workers’ ages ranging from 15 to 17 years old – and no instances of child labour for the third and fourth quarters, respectively.

Following standards from the International Labour Organization, Telenor employees and the employees of its contractors must be 18 or older to help build towers as the company has deemed work on their construction potentially hazardous, according to Mr Furberg.

But the company recognises that for many in Myanmar, the issue of underage labour can be complex and confounding. Under local law, Myanmar children can stop attending school at age 12 and start working at 13 – and teenagers are often the sole breadwinners for their households, according to Mr Furberg.
“It’s very difficult when you come out in rural Myanmar to explain why a 17-and-a-half-year-old cannot dig a hole in the ground, why he can’t carry material,” he said.

Since August, Telenor has conducted more than 2700 inspections – about 85 per week, according to Mr Furberg. Since the company came to Myanmar, it has trained 5300 people.

And yet, even when people have gone through instruction and agreements have been signed, implementation proves another matter.
A combination of factors, including human error and failure to follow correct procedures, led to the death of a 24-year-old worker on a tower site in December 2014, according to Mr Furberg.

Though he says the company’s costly and time-consuming pursuit of higher health and safety standards has not resulted in much, some signals have been encouraging.

One of Telenor’s tower companies has kept its record on child labour clear for the last nine months, while 87pc of another firm’s sub-suppliers – whose towers make up 80pc of the firm’s total – have no violations, Mr Furberg said.

Meanwhile, as the company attempts to keep children away from its tower rigs, it has teamed with the Myanmar Mobile Education project (MyME) to provide teashop employees 13 years or older educational opportunities.

To become brand outposts for Telenor, tea shops must promise not to hire children aged 12 or under, and to allow 13 to 16-year-old employees six hours of education delivered by MyME, according to Mr Furberg.

“Today, we have together and relating to the branded tea shops 120 children enrolled,” he said. “But the ambition is by the end of the year we would have 800 to 1000 enrolled.”

Health and safety standards – including those around labour – will continue to be a major issue as Telenor rolls out into the countryside, but not the only one.
“Clearly a state like Kachin represents huge challenges,” Mr Furberg said. “Going back to one of the issues that we are of course worried about is how do we handle internally displaced people.”

Meanwhile, the company’s work putting down fibre in Kayah State led to a memorable confrontation with an armed ethnic group, who halted progress on the dig. Telenor engaged with them and learned their concern was the company would lay the fibre and leave without setting up a network, Mr Furberg said.
“After explaining to them and showing them our rollout plan for their areas in the coming 12 to 18 months, everything was good and we were happily allowed to continue,” he said. “This is something that everyone now is waiting for.”

“But building in these areas we are also very well aware of the risks, and they’re clearly higher than what we have seen in other parts of Myanmar.”
Mr Furberg started the session by saying the rollout so far had been a struggle – but it seems bigger challenges may be around the bend.