Human Trafficking, Forced Labor and Seafood Q&A

Created on Friday, 27 March 2015

A recent Associated Press (AP) article has exposed the harsh realities of human trafficking and forced labor within seafood operations in Southeast Asia. A video, seen below, accompanied the article.

Last year, evidence of human trafficking, forced labor and other human rights abuses within the Thai shrimp industry were described by The Guardian and further substantiated by the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report released by the U.S. State Department.

Please read our Q & A below and visit our Human Rights Resources page for more information regarding these issues.

Consumer Questions

How can this be happening?

Human rights abuses occur in seafood supply chains when demand for low prices undermines responsible business practices. The AP story further exposes the complex issues that exist within seafood supply chains and shines a light on specific conditions in Southeast Asia. Thailand has large and complex supply chains that do not have adequate oversight. This lack of regulation opens the door for various labor and human rights abuses.

One of the biggest issues is that U.S. seafood buyers, who are trying to do the right thing, cannot verify supply chain compliance with labor laws and human rights standards in Thailand because products cannot be traced back to the point of origin.

As a result, leading seafood buyers worldwide are unknowingly and indirectly supporting these egregious abuses by buying and selling Thai seafood. Many seafood companies who have worked hard to create environmentally sustainable seafood sourcing policies are unaware that human rights abuses are most likely happening in their own supply chains

What type of fish is safe to eat?

While the AP and Guardian articles name specific types of seafood associated with trafficking or forced labor, these stories are just glimpses into a problem that affects the entire seafood industry. However, the majority of this industry operates legally and employs fair labor practices. Some certifications inspect labor conditions and can be an added assurance that the product is abuse-free, such as the Fair Trade USA certification.

Where can I shop to avoid this type of seafood?

It depends, but asking questions is a great way for consumers to learn more. When purchasing seafood in a store or at a restaurant, ask where it came from and if it’s a responsibly sourced item produced with fair labor standards. If in doubt, purchase seafood from companies that are working hard to improve human rights and promote fair labor practices. 

Should I boycott?

No. Boycotting specific stores, types of seafood, or even countries does not guarantee avoidance of this issue. The majority of seafood sold in North America is imported from overseas, where tracking its origin can be a challenge for even the AP investigative reporting team. The market for seafood is not only in the U.S. and EU so if we stop supporting that industry these products may just be sold elsewhere. That’s why FishWise and other leaders are calling for systematic change to the entire industry, which requires a participatory, collaborative effort.

What can I do about this?

Talk to your seafood retailer about how they trace their seafood and how they’re supporting efforts to improve labor conditions in their supply chains. This sends the message that this topic is important to you and customers want more transparent information, encouraging the retailer to take action. If they’re interested in specific steps businesses can take, see the industry questions below.

You can also voice public support to improve regulations and enforcement to protect human rights throughout the industry. And you can still make informed and sustainable seafood purchasing decisions by using seafood buying guides such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch pocket card or smartphone app.

Industry Questions

What can the industry do?

All companies will have to be vigilant to ensure that human trafficking, forced labor, and other human rights issues are not present in their supply chains. U.S. retailers, foodservice providers, distributors, and others in the supply chain can use their buying power to help eradicate human trafficking and forced labor in today’s global seafood industry.

What specific steps can seafood businesses take to ensure they are not buying seafood associated with human rights abuses?

  • Map it: Ensure 100% traceability to the farm, feed mills, and the vessels, ensure products can be traced to origin and names and addresses of all entities that handled the product can be identified.
  • Audit: Support unannounced labor audits of all steps in the supply chain, including vessels, and worker interviews via certification or as required by vendor agreements.
  • Pledge and Track: Ensure that each link in the supply chain makes a binding, documentable pledge to their customer to avoid all forms of labor abuse.
  • Communicate with suppliers: When identified, share concerns regarding human trafficking and labor violations with suppliers, then stipulate that continued procurement will be based on improvement by agreed upon timelines.
  • Communicate with consumers: Provide clear information to consumers on the origin of fisheries products and the actions taken to guarantee products are not connected to human rights abuses, labor violations or environmental damage.