IndustriALL and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) have alleged global shipping companies Maersk, Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A (MSC) and CMA CGM are putting commercial interests above human rights concerns by continuing to ship from 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 said: “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.”

However, Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business director Vicky Bowman told Just Style exclusively that she does not share this analysis of Myanmar’s economy.

She explained: “Provision of shipping services by Maersk and others to the formal import and export economy continues to support jobs for those who remain in Myanmar, and partially helps them survive the growing humanitarian crisis.”

At Maersk’s March Annual General Meeting 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.

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However, a Maersk spokesperson told Just Style its stance remains as stated at the AGM where the company explained it had been following the situation in the country closely, prioritising the health and wellbeing of its employees while continuing to support customers and contributing to the local economy.

Maersk’s AGM March statement continued: “It is our strong belief that global trade can be a powerful enabler for development when carried out in a responsible and sustainable way. We have carefully considered how to remain engaged in Myanmar while honouring our commitment to respect international standards of human rights. We have conducted heightened human rights due diligence to assess human rights risks and how Maersk’s management systems are preventing or mitigating such risks. Our assessment and preliminary conclusion is that it is possible for our company to continue operating responsibly in Myanmar. We will continue to monitor the situation in Myanmar closely.”

The spokesperson also wanted to make it clear that it is “complying with all sanctions imposed by other states and international society against the military regime in Myanmar”.

Neither the Mediterranean Shipping Company S.A (MSC) or CMA CGM had responded to Just Style’s request for comment at the time of going to press.

IndustriALL general secretary Atle Høie claimed: “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.”

IndustriALL also alleged that Maersk’s position is at odds with EU supply chain initiatives such as the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive and the new EU Forced Labour Regulation.

It added the International Labour Organization found violations of the Forced Labour Convention and trade unions report instances of forced labour in factories, which allegedly suggest that Maersk and other shipping companies may be importing products made with forced labour.

ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton said: “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.”

Earlier this month (April) Myanmar Labour News reported a 300% increase in labour rights violations in 2023 compared to 2022, however Bowman told Just Style it reflected increased disturbances to the country’s garment sector with workers facing a “more precarious and exploitative employment”.