By James Wright, Senior Editor
Published on Wednesday, March 25, 2015
The Associated Press (AP) on Tuesday linked seafood products harvested by slave laborers on fishing boats in Indonesia to major seafood companies around the world, including Thai Union Frozen Products (TUF), Thailand’s largest seafood corporation and one of the largest in the world.
Its article, titled “Are slaves catching the fish you buy?” details oppressive living and working conditions for laborers, mostly from Myanmar, one of the world’s poorest nations, on fishing boats and in isolated locations in Indonesia. Those considered flight risks are often locked up as prisoners.
The AP then linked the products the workers harvested to major international and U.S. seafood companies like TUF, California distributor Santa Monica Seafood, Stavis Seafoods in Boston and retail giants like Walmart, Kroger and Safeway and foodservice distributor Sysco.
Richard Stavis, president of Stavis Seafoods, told the AP that his company and others like it “care and are working as hard as they can” to source from responsible fisheries, including notarized certification of legal practices and third-party audits. “The truth is, these are the kind of things that keep you up at night,” he said.
The AP’s year-long investigation started in Benjina, Indonesia, where reporters found hundreds of men trapped on the island village and treated as prisoners. Talking to more than 40 current and former slaves, the article documented the journey of a single large shipment of slave-caught seafood that it tracked by satellite to Thailand and then outward to the global seafood supply chain.
Product shipped to Thailand, where “slave-caught seafood starts to lose its history,” the article stated. Numerous Thai factories were identified, including one that sells to TUF. Company CEO Thiraphong Chansiri emailed a statement to the AP that condemned human rights violations but also admitted the difficulty in cleaning up Thailand’s seafood industry.
Several of the Thai processing plants where the product was shipped sell to customers in Europe and Asia, but the AP traced shipments to the United States, where trade records are public. Logan Kock, VP of responsible sourcing for Santa Monica Seafood, said the industry is well aware of the problem.
“The supply chain is quite cloudy, especially when it comes from offshore,” he said.
Reaction from the industry is coming in. The Global Aquaculture Alliance, which dedicated much of its 2014 GOAL conference program to human rights abuses, reiterated that its commitment to social justice is “one of the pillars of its responsible aquaculture program.”
Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute, was quoted in the AP story, calling the reports of abuse “disturbing” and “disheartening.”
In a statement to SeafoodSource, NFI called on the governments of the countries highlighted in the AP report to “act swiftly to investigate these allegations and, if verified, to prosecute the criminals fully.”
“While the assertions made in this article are difficult to read, we appreciate the specificity of the allegations. It will enable us to more quickly and surely investigate the story,” NFI stated. "Given reliable, accurate and actionable information the seafood community is in a unique position to address these challenges. We encourage anyone with credible information about labor abuses, like the ones alleged in this report, to come forward so we can examine and act on them. Only engagement will drive action. We are and will remain engaged in the effort to stamp out labor violations.”
Slave labor in seafood has grabbed a lot of mass media attention recently. Last year, UK newspaper The Guardian wrote about extensive use of slave labor on Thai “ghost ships” that enslave and even kill workers. Products from those boats were then linked to the global shrimp supply chain. Thailand is one of the world’s largest producers of farmed shrimp. The AP story made no allegations of illegal labor practices against farmed shrimp producers or traders.