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Shipping companies’ lifeline to Myanmar junta demonstrates disdain for human rights

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22 April, 2024Unions slam shipping giants for sustaining regime, including Maersk’s hollow claim of performing ‘heightened human rights due diligence’.

Global shipping giants are putting commercial interests above human rights concerns by continuing to ship from Myanmar, say trade unionists from Myanmar and global union federations IndustriALL Global Union and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

The companies, Maersk, Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A (MSC) and CMA CGM – all of which have annual revenues in the tens of billions in USD – are playing a key role in sustaining the ruling military junta in Myanmar.

“The military junta of Myanmar is surviving from international trade - done with violations of workers’ rights, human rights, bombings of its own populations,”

said Maung Maung, General Secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions, Myanmar (CTUM), an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation.

In his message to the shipping companies, Maung Maung said:

“All the containers your ships carry are owned by the cronies of the military, as they are the only people who can work in Myanmar now. All the fuel you load on your ships in Myanmar are sold by those who are on the UK or US sanctions lists.  

“Your ships and yourselves are not only supporting a military junta under sanctions by the UK and US, but also will soon be identified as those violating these sanctions and will face enforcement actions through either the UK Sanctions office or the US Treasury enforcement regulations.”

International trade is crucial to the survival of the ruling military junta in Myanmar, enabling it to receive the foreign exchange it needs to buy weapons, ammunition and fuel – and as it loses access to land borders, maritime trade is becoming increasingly vital.

At Maersk’s March AGM in Copenhagen, the ITF statement delivered to the company’s shareholders and executives called on it not to throw a lifeline to the military regime. Days later, the European Council approved the European Union’s long-awaited human rights due diligence Directive, the ‘Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence’ Directive (CSDDD).

Maersk runs the biggest container operation serving Myanmar, which it expanded in 2021 after the military coup – as other companies considered exiting the country – by launching three new container vessels. MSC established an office in Yangon in 2016 which currently has 15 staff working to “support… local clients”. Similarly, CMA CGM (Myanmar) Ltd was established in 2014 with an office in Yangon, and it operates “a weekly feeder service” with export/import cargo handled via Malaysia.

Major exports from Myanmar include garments, gems, wood and other commodities, with trade unions in Myanmar calling for disinvestment from the country to starve the regime of the resources it needs to maintain its oppression.

ITF research shows that this year Maersk has carried shipments originating from Myanmar for H&M, Adidas and LL Bean. ITF research also shows that multiple MSC and CMA-CGM ships have sailed in and out of ports in Myanmar in 2024, including Yangon and Thilawa.

Independent Federation of Myanmar Seafarers (IFOMS) General Secretary, Aung Kyaw Lin, currently living in exile in the USA, said:

“These shipping companies should not be making huge profits from our people's misery – our revolution against the junta is not a business opportunity.

“We need to get these thugs out of power and we need democracy.”

Maersk claimed at its March AGM that it is “following the situation in the country very closely”, that “global trade can be a powerful enabler for development when carried out in a sustainable and responsible way” and that it has “conducted heightened human rights due diligence to assess human rights risks and how Maersk's management systems are preventing or mitigating such risk”.

IndustriALL general secretary Atle Høie said:

“So-called ‘heightened human rights due diligence’ is a common choice of language from companies that choose to ignore findings by the ILO on freedom of association and forced labour violations, and an assessment by the Ethical Trading Initiative that due diligence is not possible in Myanmar. The military junta has banned most trade unions, killed dozens of union activists, and arrested many others.

“Maersk has conducted its own risk assessment – which it has not made public – which claims that there is no risk to the seafarers, office employees and warehouse workers that it employs. But Maersk’s responsibility is wider than this: by maintaining a vital trade link, Maersk provides a lifeline for the regime.”

Maersk’s position is at odds with EU supply chain initiatives including the soon to be approved EU CSDDD and the new EU Forced Labour Regulation. The International Labour Organization found violations of the Forced Labour Convention and trade unions report instances of forced labour in factories, which suggest that Maersk and other shipping companies may be importing products made with forced labour.

ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton said:

“It’s crystal clear that Myanmar’s ruling military junta depends on foreign exchange in order to survive – in order to sustain the abuses suffered daily by trade unionists and the people of Myanmar.

“It’s disappointing that these shipping companies continue to trade with Myanmar, and surprising that Maersk in particular claims that it can somehow continue to operate responsibly there.

“We would welcome the opportunity to assist the companies to reconsider trading with Myanmar’s military junta, to be on the right side of history and uphold their image as responsible, socially aware companies.”