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Business (and Nation) Building
This story has been updated to clarify the terms of a GE deal.
In February, Mark Nordstrom took a four-day trip to Myanmar. As a senior counsel for General Electric Company who specializes in labor and employment law, he has global responsibility for legal aspects of its human resources policies. And since last June, when the United States and the International Labor Organization (ILO) lifted some sanctions against the countryafter its long-entrenched military dictatorship adopted democratic reformsGE has been planning to do business there.
Nordstrom's colleague, Bob Corcoran, who leads GE's corporate citizenship program and runs its foundation, visited last summer "to get his feet wet," as Nordstrom puts it. Not long after, GE managed to sign a deal to sell the country CT scanning equipment valued at $2 million. Still, GE is under no illusion that progress will be swift. "What's important here," Nordstrom underscores, "is that we develop our business strategy in a very thoughtful, prudentthat means slow and incrementalway." Recently Nordstrom spoke about his trip with executive editor David Hechler. An edited version of their conversation follows.
Corporate Counsel: Does GE have a history of doing business in Burma?
Mark Nordstrom: We did business in Burma until 1996, when a Massachusetts law was passed that prohibited certain involvement there. [Our business] was mostly in the energy space. We had installed a number of gas turbines and other energy facilities throughout Burma. One of the things we are seeking to do at this point is to help modernize these turbines to make them more efficient.
CC: Any other industries GE is pursuing besides health care and energy?
MN: Our aircraft leasing business has been successful in leasing some airplanes to the Burmese air authority. And we have a water business. And the health care is in two parts. One is entirely philanthropic and deals with infant and maternal mortality. The other has to do with a limited number of commercial sales of CT scanners.
CC: Are the rule of law and the protection of human rights in Myanmar concepts under construction?
MN: Rule of law is something that needs to be worked on vigorously, helped by the U.S. government and other governments. That means everything from access to justice to strengthening the court system to training judges. The institutions of law are weak and need to be strengthened in almost A-to-Z fashion.
CC: What role does GE hope to play in this process?
MN: We don't have a specific plan to undertake a rule of law initiative at this time. We have done that in other countries, like Egypt. It's something that we would probably be considering in due course in Myanmar, if we felt that there was a good role for us to play.
CC: Will other companies collaborate with GE on this initiative?
MN: Coca-Cola, Chevron, GE, and [French energy company] Total are all part of an organization called the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights. We meet periodically throughout the world, and so, for example, next week I'll be in China with those companies. It's too early to have such a meeting in Myanmar, but as we get together, we have exchanged information about operating in Myanmar in a way that would respect human rights.
CC: Can you describe one experience that gave you cause for optimism?
MN: One of the advisers to government officials talked to us about his delight in having the U.N. Global Compact open an office in Yangon. The other thingwe were in this traffic jam, and alongside the car, kids were selling candy and bottled water and newspapers. And then here's somebody coming by with something that didn't look like a newspaper. And the driver goes, "Oh, that's the new foreign investment act." In three different languagesFrench, English, and German. If that's not a sign of their being open for business . . .
CC: Can you describe one experience that tempered your optimism?
MN: I was talking to one of the guys in the ILO who had been there a number of years, and in order to get your gas bill paid every month, you had to go through a series of lines, and each time you have to put in the 50 cents or whatever to get to the next line. It just seemed like all these toll gates where people were looking to have some kind of payment. Also, three times I tried to pay my hotel bill through MasterCard, and I couldn't do it.
CC: As an employment lawyer, what are some of the issues one has to consider when doing business in Myanmar?
MN: Recently they passed a bunch of laws and allowed a right to strike. So people would go out on strike because they could. And they would go to the ILO and say, "We're out on strike, and my employer's not paying me." And the ILO guy said, "What do you expect?" And they said, "Well, he should be providing lunch!"