Telenor addresses underage labour, corruption and site fatalities

At a sustainability briefing yesterday – the third given by the Norwegian operator, which is the only telco to hold a public event discussing these issues – Telenor Myanmar CEO Petter Furberg covered major risks in the telecoms sector ranging from land issues to health and safety concerns.

And though the company has taken measures to prevent violations, still it has seen tragedy strike.

Mr Furberg said last June, two workers on a Mandalay tower site died in an accident due to serious violations of the firm’s health, safety, security and environmental (HSSE) standards.

“It was due to improper excavation of the tower pit, which … has to be [done] in a way where the walls are not pointing inwards or collapsing,” said Mr Furberg. “It is also extremely important that the [soil] that has been taken out of the pit is placed securely around the pit.”

“That had not happened in this case.”

The incident in part drove Telenor to implement a five-step sign-off process, which requires approval following progressive phases of the tower construction.

In total, three people have died on tower sites contracted by the company since 2014, according to Telenor. The company does not build its own towers, but hires infrastructure companies to put them up on its behalf.

In comparison, Telenor’s competitors Ooredoo and Myanma Posts and Telecommunications both told The Myanmar Times yesterday they had no reported fatalities on their tower sites in the past year.

Meanwhile, Telenor reported that zero fatalities had occurred in the first quarter of 2016.

In the same period, the company has found six cases of underage labour and one case of child labour in its supply chain.

Underage labour refers to work conducted by teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17, while those under 15 years old are classified as child workers.

Telenor found 13 cases of child labour and 38 cases of underage labour in its supply chain in 2015, with child labour cases up by seven on the previous year and underage labour down from 45 cases in 2014.

“Since we started [operations], we have discovered 89 cases of underage labour and 19 cases of child labour,” Mr Furberg said yesterday. “The numbers are going down, but we still have not been able to eradicate it.”

Child and underage labour is a complex issue in Myanmar, as Mr Furberg said international standards ban anyone under the age of 18 from potentially hazardous work – a stipulation which forbids them from the company’s tower sites. Meanwhile, local law dictates that from the age of 14, Myanmar children are eligible to work, he said – adding that according to UNICEF, about one-third of children are working.

To combat child and underage labour in its supply chain, Telenor conducts inspections – the vast majority of them unexpected – 95 times per week on average now, with over 4500 completed since 2015 and 7382 performed in total.

The inspection team can halt work on a site if they see breaches – this has happened 48 times – and nine site supervisors have been fired for violations, Mr Furberg said.

“We’re also asking our partners to blacklist subcontractors that have repeated offences,” he said, with data yesterday pointing out that four have been struck off.

All work and no play, children prop up Myanmar’s economy

The issue of child labour, however, can’t be solved by one company in the telecoms industry alone.

In Shan State last year, Mr Furberg and a colleague spotted someone working on a Telenor tower site without protective gear.

“Of course the brakes were hit,” he said. “We ran out and were told by the site supervisor that they were working for another operator which didn’t demand the same HSSE standards as Telenor.”

He said as long as there are different standards among suppliers and between operations, it will be impossible to lift industry benchmarks to an international level.

The telco also addressed challenges to operating in Myanmar at its sustainability briefing, including corruption and infrastructure-sharing.

It has introduced a no-gift policy to simplify procedures on presents, Mr Furberg announced, though the new rule doesn’t count Telenor merchandise.

“Those of you who would like a Telenor propeller and cups and T-shirts will still be able to get them,” he said to laughs.

A state liason officer for the company was in one case asked by a local township authority for “donations”.

The official was rejected and was told that accepting money could result in prosecution, and further requests could bring higher authorities into the picture, said Mr Furberg, adding that, in the end, the documents were stamped without any money changing hands.

Donations were also sought by one ethnic armed group, who blocked work on towers. The situation led, even after weeks of talks, to Telenor withdrawing from the area.

“We did not reach an agreement satisfactory to Telenor, [as] we never pay any local taxes or donations in these situations,” Mr Furberg said. “We pulled out and even filled in one tower pit that had been excavated.”

Telenor reported yesterday it had nearly 5000 towers live across Myanmar – bringing the company halfway to its goal of covering 90 percent of the country with almost 10,000 towers. Population coverage has reached 62pc, Mr Furberg said, with more than one-half of users engaging with data each month.

The operator has now entered all of Myanmar’s states, regions and territories, though it cannot run its network in some areas due to conflict or permissions.

“We have come far,” said Mr Fur-berg. “But we’re still not yet where we really want to be with respect to international standards.”

Source: Myanmar Times

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