Human Trafficking and Imported Seafood

Created on Monday, 23 September 2013


Photo by: Mike Markovina/Marine Photobank

While environmental sustainability is now a common topic for discussion during seafood procurement, less emphasis is placed on the social & human rights aspects of seafood supply chains. This paradigm is starting to shift out of necessity, in terms of both risk management and opportunities for story telling & promotion.

Along with the moral atrocities of human rights abuses, sales of even the most environmentally sustainable product could decrease significantly if human rights violations in the product’s supply chain were discovered and reported to consumers. Some companies are ahead of this curve, having found that highlighting the social benefits to regions and communities help consumers connect with the source of a product. For example, ThisFish allows consumers to email the fisherman directly, I Love Blue Sea dedicates an entire page to introducing you to their fishermen, Pacifical promotes its investment in Pacific communities by increasing local processing employment opportunities, and ANOVA details its social commitments in its Sustainability Report.

Unfortunately, fishing related industries–most notably shrimp peeling and processing operations in Thailand and “Flag of Convenience” (FoC) fishing vessels throughout South East Asia and West Africa–have been linked to human trafficking. Case studies by the Environmental Justice Foundation documenting so-called “modern slavery” practices in fisheries and/or aquaculture have included first hand and eye-witness accounts of child labor, deceitful recruiting, physical and mental abuse, hazardous working conditions, abandonment and/or refusal to repatriate, imprisonment, denial of fair and promised pay, and the withholding of official documents (i.e. passports).

The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report seeks to assess how well governments are addressing and responding to the crime(s) of human trafficking. According to the 2013 TIP Report, “human trafficking” and/or “trafficking in persons” are umbrella terms for “the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.”

Some of the most prominent seafood capture and export nations, such as Russia, Thailand, and China, have been implicated as failing to comply with minimum standards outlined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. For these reasons, up-to-date TIP Report information is of increasing relevance to the seafood industry. Each of the 188 countries and/or territories assessed in the TIP Report are assigned to Tier 1 (full compliance with TVPA standards), Tier 2 (working towards full compliance), Tier 2 Watch List (working towards full compliance but significant work remains), or Tier 3 (not making significant efforts to comply).

The U.S. imports 91% of the seafood sold in this country. The top 10 exporting nations and their corresponding TIP report ratings are:

  • China, 23.2%, Tier 3
  • Thailand, 15.5%, Tier 2 Watch List
  • Canada, 11.9%, Tier 1
  • Other Asian Countries, 7.9%, varies
  • Viet Nam, 7.2%, Tier 2
  • Indonesia, 5.1%, Tier 2
  • Ecuador, 4.9%, Tier 2
  • Chile, 3.8%, Tier 2
  • India, 2.7%, Tier 2
  • Mexico, 2.6%, Tier 2

These numbers are based on NOAA 2011 U.S. import volumes of edible seafood products.

Most notably in the 2013 TIP Report, both China and Russia received an automatic downgrade to Tier 3 for remaining on the Tier 2 Watch List for several consecutive years. Due to a recently adopted government plan to combat trafficking, Thailand was granted a waiver from the automatic Tier 3 downgrade (both China and Russia had received the same waiver in 2011 and 2012). There are currently 23 countries and/or territories with a Tier 3 designation, including North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Liberia and Yemen. 

Seafood companies should begin to ask their suppliers about compliance with social standards to ensure safe working conditions throughout the seafood industry. The country ratings in the TIP report can be used for prioritization, and if problems are uncovered, companies should switch sources or request supply chains make improvements or seek certification.

FishWise will release a white paper on human rights in the seafood industry, including detailed recommendations for seafood companies, later this year.