Labor Abuse in the Seafood Industry Captures Media Attention
By: Aurora Alifano
Labor and human rights violations in the global seafood industry have been documented for years. Media coverage of trafficked workers in Thailand has traditionally focused on the sex industry, but recent reports of shocking human rights and labor violations in Thailand’s shrimp industry captured public notice. For the first time, the names of major retailers in the U.S. and Europe that sell Thai shrimp produced with human trafficking and forced labor were exposed by the Guardian in June 2014. International media outlets further broadcast the story, highlighting human rights violations in Thailand’s fisheries.
Less than a month after the investigation release, the U.S. State Department determined that that Thailand does not comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and that human rights violations within the fishing industry remain a problem, as outlined in the 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. Once again, Thailand made headlines when it was downgraded to Tier 3 in the 2014 TIP report, the lowest possible level.
Exposed companies addressed the media coverage by publically advertising their efforts to reduce and eliminate human trafficking and other labor violations in their supply chains. These problems were met with encouraging action by retailers. “We are committed to working with our suppliers of Thai shrimp to require them to take corrective action to police their feedstock sources with respect to poor labor practices,” read one retailer’s initial statement. “This commitment so far has involved visits by our buying staff to Thailand and discussions with the Thai government, our suppliers, and other industry participants.”
How are sustainability certifications responding?
In response, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a major seafood certification body, announced a new policy against forced labor in August 2014. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) stated, “MSC condemns the use of forced labor. Companies successfully prosecuted for forced labor violations shall be ineligible for MSC certification.”
Aquaculture certifications are also looking to address this issue. At the 2014 Global Outlook on Aquaculture Leadership (GOAL) conference, the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation (IFFO), Lyons Seafoods Co. and Wm Morrison Supermarkets collectively agreed to a position statement addressing the social concerns related to aqua feed production. The statement affirmed, “It is essential that robust, comprehensive and socially responsible standards are implemented within aquaculture and its supply industries and that human rights are protected”.
Through the public statement, each party committed to supporting and promoting Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs) that incorporate social standards and other programs based on the key elements of the ILO Work in Fishing Convention (ILO 188).
Seafish’s Responsible Fishing Scheme (RFS) recently updated fishing vessel standards with a focus on social and ethical criteria to prevent trafficked or bonded labor. It is widely accepted that fishing vessels operate at sea with limited monitoring and enforcement, and are often considered hazardous working environments. Workers can encounter a spectrum of issues ranging from extremely low wages, inadequate sanitation, lack of safety equipment, and long working hours to documented cases of forced labor, human trafficking and even murder (ILO 2013). Ongoing development of the RFS could offer a potential solution to address ethical issues on board fishing vessels.
Until international efforts can improve the monitoring and enforcement of social standards in the seafood industry, more stories linking seafood companies with products tainted by trafficking and forced labor are likely. Seafood businesses can promote the adoption of good labor practices by using their influence to proactively engage their supply chains.
When human rights and labor violations are featured in reports and globally broadcast in the media, the potential for hardened public attitudes toward seafood industry actors and impacts to seafood sales escalates. There will be continued reputational and financial risks to seafood businesses until serious progress on this topic has been made.
We suggest companies familiarize themselves with case studies to understand the scope and breadth of these problems. To take action, we suggest companies review the following guidelines, and contact FishWise (firstname.lastname@example.org) to be connected to human rights experts.