Bumble Bee Seafood “adamantly disagrees” with claims made in a new lawsuit that the supplier and its owner, Kaohsiung, Taiwan-based FCF Co., use forced labor and have inadequate worker-safety standards.
The company “adamantly disagrees with the allegations made in the lawsuit and will defend ourselves,” the San Diego, California, U.S.A.-based tuna firm said in a statement to SeafoodSource. “We continue to work within our supply chain, with others in the tuna industry and through the Seafood Task Force to make the responsible recruitment and treatment of all workers an ongoing top priority."
In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. Superior Court for the District of Columbia, the nonprofit group Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, alleges that Bumble Bee and FCF “have a long history of engaging in and/or allowing unfair and dangerous labor practices in the commercial fishing of the seafood that ends up in Bumble Bee products.”
“Bumble Bee’s supply chain not only falls short of international laws and standards regarding fair labor practices, but also employs fishing methods that are inherently dangerous for workers,” the organization said. "These failures have resulted in documented instances of forced labor, human trafficking, and numerous other violations of worker safety.”
FCF’s supply chain comes from fishing methods and regions recognized by U.S. government agencies as high risk for forced labor and other abuses, GLJ-ILRF alleged.
“Bumble Bee has thus long relied on FCF’s supply chain and profited from the well-documented and endemic labor abuses therein,” the group said. “For years, Greenpeace and other organizations have documented reports of destructive fishing practices and human rights abuses in FCF’s supply chains. We’re confident that there is enough reasonable suspicion that seafood traded by FCF and imported by Bumble Bee and other U.S. companies is produced by forced labor.”
Bumble Bee’s tuna is sourced through “distant-water fishing,” a practice that involves vessels traveling long distances outside of their own nation’s waters “and that is recognized by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection as a practice at high risk for forced labor,” the organization added.
Yet Bumble Bee makes marketing and advertising representations that convey to consumers that it is “best-in-class” in terms of its worker safety standards and that it is the company’s mission to “champion sustainable fishing” throughout its supply chain, according to the lawsuit. Bumble Bee’s “deceptive” marketing representations impede “meaningful efforts for change,” the organization said.
“As a market leader, Bumble Bee is able to use its ‘fair and safe’ claims to convince wide swaths of consumers that they can support ethical practices without needing to change their purchasing habits, and to shut out advocacy groups and competitors in efforts for genuine reform in commercial fishing,” it added.
GLJ-ILRF said that Bumble Bee developed its code of conduct with the Seafood Task Force, an industry-led group, which “ensures that standards are set according to industry norms, instead of according to best practices.”
In May 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Trade placed a Withhold Release Order (WRO) was issued to the Taiwanese-flagged Yu Long 2, and in February 2020, the Taiwan-flagged Tunago 61 was given a WRO, though it was revoked on 31 March by the CBP after it obtained evidence tuna produced by the vessel was not caught using forced labor conditions. At the time, the vessels were suppliers to FCF Co, which purchased Bumble Bee Foods in January 2020.
In reports titled , “Choppy Waters” and “Seabound: The Journey to Modern Slavery on the High Seas,” Greenpeace Southeast Asia linked FCF to labor abuses including deception, wage-withholding, excessive overtime, and physical abuse.
In a July 2021 interview with SeafoodSource, Bumble Bee Seafood Senior Vice President of Global Corporate and Social Responsibility Leslie Hushka said the company was working with the operators of the vessel supplying its tuna to insure adequate health and safety conditions onboard.
“We do not, as Bumble Bee, own all of the thousands of fishing vessels that we potentially source from, and even our owner FCF, they do not own the vessels, so it’s multiple parts of the chain we have to work with to influence the practices on these vessels in terms of types of gear they’re using, how they fish to ensure they’re as responsible as possible, and how they treat their workers in terms of basic health and safety conditions on the vessels,” Hushka said. “We have put in place a lot of policies in terms of code of conduct that we expect our suppliers to implement, and we have rigorous audit program to ensure parts of our supply chains are meeting those standards, but it’s just very complex when you’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of vessels. There are some real challenges in this industry just in terms of complexity, but we’ve tried to put in place a number of systems where we can consistently work with our fleets and seek improvements in all of their practices.”
Photo courtesy of Bumble Bee Seafood