Corporate Coordination Can Stop Seafood Slavery

Burmese fishermen arrive at the compound of Pusaka Benjina Resources, April 2015.

In 2015, media investigations revealed horrific occurrences of physical and emotional violence, human trafficking, and murder on fishing vessels and in shrimp processing facilities primarily in Southeast Asia. The stories sent shockwaves through the seafood industry, but despite efforts by several companies to combat these abuses, seafood slavery persists and will continue to erode consumer trust without a more comprehensive response. At a moment when many U.S. policymakers and ordinary citizens are voicing skepticism over U.S. participation in a globalized economy, now is the time for the international seafood industry to take robust and unified steps toward a transparent and traceable seafood supply chain.

The U.S. Department of State has identified seafood-related human trafficking in more than 65 countries over the past half-decade, many of which supply seafood to the United States, including major exporters such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The paths by which seafood from these countries enters the United States is complex and often opaque. There are numerous points along supply chains at which fish caught or processed using forced labor are mixed with responsibly caught fish—some occurring even before the fish first hit dry land. For example, vessels will often offload their catch onto a supply ship in exchange for provisions and fuel, where it commingles with fish from other vessels. This practice, known as transshipment at sea, allows fishing boats to stay offshore for months—or even years—at a time, keeping laborers from escaping from what amount to floating prisons.

The international seafood supply chain is composed of tens of millions of people moving 158 million metric tons of fish and shellfish annually. This complexity alone poses a serious obstacle to eliminating slave-caught seafood from the U.S. market. The solution is not as straightforward as simply refusing to buy fish from boats with slaves on board. And yet, despite the complicated nature of the problem, the industry must address these abuses. The United States is the second-largest seafood importer after the European Union, and U.S. importers and retailers have a crucial role to play in the global fight against trafficking in persons and other labor abuses.

To date, the response from seafood retailers and suppliers has been uneven, but at least three major corporations have begun taking steps to address the issue. Thai Union, the world’s largest canned tuna producer—best known in the U.S. for its Chicken of the Sea brand—was one of the companies identified in the reports as having labor abuses in its supply chain. The company now prohibits illegal recruitment fees for laborers and is working with the Issara Institute, a nongovernmental organization, or NGO, in Thailand, to provide workers a safe channel to report abuses. Global retailer Nestlé, which uses fish in its Purina brand pet foods, has taken steps to ensure that 99 percent of the seafood it source is traceable to the fishing vessel, including the feed used for farmed fish. And in March 2017, Nestlé and Mars committed to banning the practice of transshipment at sea throughout their supply chains.

While these actions together comprise a good start, their effectiveness in actually removing human trafficking from the fishing industry has yet to be proven, so watchdog groups must remain vigilant to ensure these actions achieve the desired outcomes. Furthermore, with only a few companies employing this strategy, illegal actors can find alternate buyers for their tainted product. Without unified pressure from all retailers, and absent robust enforcement mechanisms in the countries where the abuses occur, there is limited incentive for fishing companies and seafood suppliers to take stronger action.

The Seafood Task Force, a working group established by Costco and Charoen Pokphand, or CP, Foods, provides optimism for a united industry approach. The task force consists of 41 retailers, suppliers, processors, and NGOs who joined together in 2014 to focus on increasing transparency and accountability in the Thai seafood industry. Notably, the members of the task force purchase a combined $7 billion of Thai seafood annually. As of December 2016, the task force had established a universal code of conduct and assessed more than 200 vessels, ports, and fishmeal processing facilities in order to provide members the information needed to verify their supply chains were free of abuses. Still, the task force suffers with enforcement, and each retailer and importer has continued to act independently to combat these abuses.

To end seafood slavery, all retailers must require bait-to-plate seafood traceability

The inherent complexity and lack of transparency in the seafood supply chain increases the risk of slavery occurring and hinders the seafood industry’s ability to respond to illicit activity. Bait-to-plate traceability is a recordkeeping system that tracks the fish from harvest to the final sale to the consumer. Documenting where the fish has been and where it has changed hands creates a more transparent and accountable supply chain. Most other foods in the United States, including beef and produce, are already traced for food safety purposes. In January 2018, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will require seafood traceability for 13 fish species sold in the United States and has stated an intention to expand the requirements to all seafood. For retailers operating legally, building upon the federal program by requiring full-chain traceability for all seafood sold in their stores is a clear first step. Seafood traceability garners consumer trust by documenting where the fish have been and ensuring the legality of the supply chain, but it will only succeed if all U.S. retailers enact the same standards for data collection and verification.

Retailers must commit to working with partners to increase protection and resources for victims

All U.S. importers and retailers should require suppliers to prove that their workers are treated in accordance with international labor standards, including banning the use of recruitment fees and ensuring their laborers have access to contracts outlining the conditions of employment. Migrant workers are inherently more vulnerable to human rights abuse, and many pay excessive fees to brokers operating illegally in order to enter employment. The workers are then tricked, trafficked, and indebted to the broker or vessel captain for months to years at a time. By working with organizations on the ground, such as the Migrant Worker Rights Network and the Issara Institute, retailers can educate workers on their rights, increase communication and outreach, and provide victims a safe space to voice concerns.

The existence of human trafficking and forced labor in the seafood industry tarnishes consumer perception of fish and shellfish. To regain the public’s trust and end human rights abuse, the private sector must work collectively to require full-chain seafood traceability and commit to protecting and educating workers in countries otherwise lacking the resources or capacity to do so.

Avery Siciliano is a Research Associate for the Ocean Policy team at the Center for American Progress. Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy at the Center, Shiva Polefka, Associate Director of Ocean Policy at the Center, and Trevor Sutton, Senior Fellow with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center, contributed to this column.