Study develops new method for identifying risk of forced labor in seafood supply chains

A recent study, published 25 July, has developed a method to identify areas with high risks of forced labor throughout the seafood supply chain. 

Published in Science Advances, the study – over the course of five years – developed a framework with five separate components that can allow companies to “efficiently and effectively assess” the risk of forced labor in supply chains. The framework utilizes existing data on supply chains as well as some of the same traceability technologies used in food safety to track worker conditions. 

“The seafood sector has among the world’s most complex supply chains and utilizes sophisticated technology to track food safety conditions,” said Dr. Katrina Nakamura, lead author of the study and co-founder of the Sustainability Incubator. “We wondered if the technology could also be used to collect data on working conditions. Our report shows the idea bears out. Companies in our study could see, for the first time, where conditions met minimum principles, were unknown, or were inadequate.”

Using data collected from UN institutions, NGOs, and seafood companies with interviews of workers on fishing vessels and in processing plants in Asia, the study developed a metric to identify working conditions in supply chains. Then, 18 seafood companies used the data to screen 118 products within the framework developed, which has been dubbed the “Labor Safe Screen” (LSS).

“Our findings also demonstrate that human rights due diligence may be added to fishing fleets and certification programs for seafood sustainability,” Dr. Nakamura said. 

One of the co-authors of the study was Patima Tungpuchayakul, who recently won a Seafood Champion Award at the 2018 SeaWeb Seafood Summit for her ongoing efforts in the realm of workers' rights.

Tungpuchayakul said that listening to the voices of fishermen is an essential part of ensuring labor rights aren’t abused. She has long been a champion for workers' rights, and has personally repatriated nearly 3,000 fishermen who had been stranded on remote Indonesian islands as permanent workers.

“They know best what's going on, good practices and challenges. They have capacity to make things better and help others and must be encouraged to be part of the dialogue. Recognizing their skills and value is the solution,” Tungpuchayakul said. 

The assessment developed by the research team identifies multiple risk factors and asks questions that can determine what level of risk a supply chain meets. All of them are run through the five-point LSS, developing a set “score.” Companies that do not meet a certain score threshold are at a higher risk of labor abuse. 

The first component of the LSS is determining country origins for a particular product, and screening its standing as determined by human rights authorities such as the United Nations. 

“We considered the status of a country’s commitments to the ILO forced labor conventions 29, 98, and 182; the Palermo Protocol; and the Port State Measures Agreement as an indicator of prevention,” states the report. 

Next comes supply chain mapping, which calculates the full path the product takes from harvest to market. “We found that mapping the human rights data onto supply chain diagrams increased the resolution of the known risks of forced labor,” the report states. 

The third step is measuring the risks at sea using existing transparency and legal compliance of vessels. The at-sea risks were determined through an extensive interview process which identified six risk factors to be monitored: Vessel ownership and home port; vessel registration and flag; sea-going crew; vessel resupply and transshipping, governance framework, and the monitoring, control, and surveillance framework. Each risk factor comes with a subset of questions, which generates a numerical score. The higher the score, the more need for further diligence. 

The fourth component involved getting worker feedback. Part of the feedback was garnered through online surveys to collect supply chain data from suppliers. The food companies receive summary reports, and “learned where their suppliers have a reasonable knowledge of the workforce, contracting, proportion of foreign workers, and brokers, and where knowledge is limited or missing; for example, points in the supply chain where supplies from multiple origins are combined and resold.”

The workers also gave feedback about their work conditions via direct interviews, adding to the data.  

The fifth and final component of the LSS focuses on how the supply chain can improve, with principles for minimum protective conditions in the workplace, and templates for “human rights due diligence.”

“To our knowledge, this is also the first effort to holistically harness publicly available human rights data in combination with proprietary purchasing information, to drill down into the specifics of actual forced labor risk in an active product supply chain,” said the study’s second author Lori Bishop. “It's not an academic exercise, but rather a private sector tool based on the principles of human rights in business and interdisciplinary risk research.”

Engaging the 18 food companies directly to use the tool, said Bishop, demonstrates the viability of the tool and the potential future of eliminating forced labor in the seafood industry. 

“As consumer and retailer demand shifts to ‘people safe’ seafood, in the long run we see a world where the market itself makes slavery unsustainable,” Bishop said. “Though it's far from time to declare mission accomplished, we believe that the level and diversity of corporate actors engaged in this project represents a fundamental and extremely exciting tipping point in the global seafood market.”

With the new study, and the tools developed, companies can effectively gauge the risk of forced labor, the report states. “It's no longer a question of if companies can engage in thorough due diligence, but whether they will.”

Photo courtesy of Katrina Nakamura


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