Burma: Oil Giant Denies Workers' Claim of Forced Labor

French oil giant TotalFina-Elf flatly rejected accusations by a global trade union body Monday that its investments in Myanmar (formerly Burma) were directly linked to forced labor used for road-building and other heavy work around the Yadana oil pipeline off the country's southwest coast.

Reacting to allegations by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) that the multinational company "directly and knowingly profits from forced labor imposed by the Burmese army on civilians," TotalFina insisted that its work in Myanmar did not involve labor forcibly employed by the military.

"TotalFina-Elf reaffirms that it has total control, from start to finish, of its operations [in Myanmar] and has respected the demands of the people employed on these projects," it said in a statement issued from its Paris headquarters. "The group has also ensured that its suppliers did the same," it said.

Brussels-based ICFTU, which represents over 150 million workers in 148 countries, released "stark new evidence" Monday, gathered over the 12 months to September, 2002, that raised questions about TotalFina's record on the use of forced labor in the military-ruled Southeast Asian country.

The evidence, which shines a spotlight on TotalFina's construction activities for the Yadana pipeline, has been used as a means for lobbying at a European Union (EU) half-yearly Burma review which ended in Luxembourg Tuesday. It was also submitted to the International Labour Organization last week.

It is based on testimony provided by the local Federation of Trade Unions - Burma from civilians in at least 16 southern Myanmar villages who were apparently forced to work on a highway by the national army and told they would receive wages for their labor.

"In May (2002), villagers heard that TotalFina-Elf had paid the authorities for the road building and inquired with their village elders about the money," according to the 350-page report containing the evidence. "They were told that their complaint would be referred to 'higher authorities,' but are still waiting for the money months later," it said.

Arguing that the company was effectively subcontracting a division of the Myanmar army, ICFTU urged members of the EU Council of Ministers to "strengthen their Common Position on Burma...to include a ban on all European investment in the country."

TotalFina, however, denied allegations of links with the country's army, which has been accused by leading human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of ruthlessly suppressing civilians and the political opposition after generals of the military regime seized power in 1988.

"TotalFina-Elf has never had a 'contract with the Burmese army.' It is, in effect, the responsibility of the host country government, in Burma as elsewhere, to assure the protection of people," it said.

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