Forced and child labor is still an issue on our dinner plates

Published on
October 12, 2016

A recent feature article by Associated Press (AP) outlining poor working conditions on some U.S. fishing boats serves to highlight that such practices are still very much a live issue.

While forced labor was not found in this instance, the article linked its findings to those printed in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper in June 2014, which outlined the level of slavery still prevalent in the Thai shrimp industry. The article thus appeared to condemn the U.S. vessels by implication.

In practice, the U.S. has done more than many countries to protect crew from forced labor, and has also made it illegal to import seafood that has ties to slavery. However, it seems that more needs to be done by all players in the seafood supply chain if this practice is ever to be eradicated.

According to Katrina Nakamura, PhD, owner of the Sustainability Incubator, 260 million people are involved in fishing worldwide and 21 million people work in forced labor, 50 percent of them in the Asia-Pacific region.

The AP article related to crew working on boats under a visa exemption in Hawaii, pointing out that temporary foreign workers are not necessarily protected in the U.S. food sector.

“Slavery in fishing is a phenomenon worldwide, because most of the fish exports are produced in developing countries, and many fishing vessels are crewed by migrant workers from very poor countries. The reality is that working conditions in the seafood sector range from high to low to criminal, as with any other commodity,” she said.

Sixty-five to 75 percent of seafood exports originate from developing countries and seafood supply chains inevitably have transparency and governance gaps. In addition, a lot of fishing and processing labor is recruited through agencies and much of it may be subcontracted.
“Issues occur where labor laws are non-existent or not enforced, particularly with subcontracted work, or where passports are withheld,” Nakamura said. Risks of exploitation include unclear contract terms, losing possession of ID, and unscrupulous recruiters and brokers. Workers may need to pay a broker for several different paperwork items, and many start work with a 6-plus month debt.”

Companies sourcing materials from high-risk regions cannot guarantee that the minimum social accountability requirements are met, which puts them at risk of breaking U.S. law. To reduce their risk, there are a few key things that can be done to lower vulnerability to forced labor incidents, Nakamura said.

Top of the list is an ethical sourcing policy that includes procedures for suppliers failing to comply. For each product of concern, a pre-emptive chain of command and screening process should be put in place. The ethical dimension of a company's buying policy should also be backed up with a disclosure statement on its efforts to verify the legal origins of products.

“In addressing these issues, the Sweat and Toil app published by the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) is an excellent source of information to help companies begin asking questions, take action, and demand change. It is a comprehensive resource developed by the U.S. Department of Labor documenting child labor and forced labor worldwide,” said Nakamura.

ILAB also regularly publishes a list of goods produced by child and forced labor. The latest list, published on 30 September 2016, adds Indonesia to the list of countries exporting fish goods made by forced labor, putting it alongside Ghana and Thailand, and shrimp exports from Burma and Thailand. Vietnam was added to the list of fish goods made by child labor, putting this country alongside Cambodia, Indonesia, Kenya, Peru, Philippines, Uganda and Yemen, and shrimp exports from Bangladesh and Cambodia. Thailand was cited for the worst forms of child labor in shrimp.

“My advice is to check and check again. Don’t claim that every worker in the supply chain has legal and permanent status if you haven’t checked your suppliers’ claims. It is possible that their products have not been transhipped, are not produced with subcontracted labor, and do not involve migrants or temporary workers, but failing to do the homework can land you in trouble.

The International Labor Organization, Interpol, and the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime are helpful in researching international labor issues, Nakamura said. Further guidance is available from the UN. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which help companies to combat forced labor in supply chains, while the Labor Safe Screen offered by the Sustainability Incubator can help companies produce credible measures of risk and to know how to source legally and ethically.

Digging deep into the supply chain is time consuming and frustrating, and for companies carrying hundreds of different lines, the task can seem extremely daunting. Nakamura suggests a phased approach, checking out one tier at a time, and posing searching questions about the origins and inputs of seafood supplies.

“Letting suppliers know that you are improving oversight to develop accountability for your own customers, and that the sale depends on it, can lead to a positive impact,” she said.

Ask suppliers to unravel their supply chain, to show where materials come from, outline how production complies with local laws on payment for work at each stage, and ask how they will back you up in future if a product is investigated. Back this up with training on the company’s buying policy, risk factors and definitions.

“Processors should know which vessels they source from and if they don’t, then don’t deal with them. It should be fairly simple to check that crew are getting paid, that agents aren’t charging exploitative fees or the vessel cheating its crew by failing to issue proper contracts and allow them to keep ID,” said Nakamura.

The face and plight of the people behind today's seafood meal has for too long been invisible, but not for much longer, as oversight creeps into the industry to help reach the goal of labor safety for every individual. This is great news for workers. For consumers, it will soon become something they take for granted, just like the cold chains that were developed for food safety protection.

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