Jerry Knecht: NGOs taking the wrong approach with forced labor campaigns

With enforcement actions taken against two Chinese distant-water fishing firms it has accused of illicit activity, and with a move to insert verbiage on forced labor into the ongoing World Trade Organization negotiations on ending harmful fishing subsidies, the United States has recently prioritized an effort to eradicate forced labor from its seafood supply chains.

Numerous U.S. and global non-governmental organizations have stepped up their own advocacy on the issue, including the Environmental Justice Foundation and Greenpeace. They have noted that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed fishing fleet laborers to more abuses at a time when seafood demand increased, with retailers in the U.S. and many other countries around the world recording record sales in 2020.

Amy Sinclair, senior researcher and representative of the London, U.K.-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a non-governmental organization dedicated to advancing human rights in business, said the isolation of stranded fishermen aboard vessels during the pandemic has “significantly reduced transparency” and increased the risk of forced labor in the sector. The pandemic also forced the jettisoning of protections like independent on-board observers, as well as company procedures like employer training and social auditing, Sinclair told SeafoodSource. Her organization, and others, have pushed for states accused of social abuses in their seafood industries, including Taiwan and Thailand, to improve labor standards aboard their fishing fleets.

But NGOs are making a mistake by taking a policy approach to the issue because its roots are in countries with weak institutions, according to Jerry Knecht, the chairman of Portland, Maine, U.S.A.-based North Atlantic Inc., which sources from operations in Indonesia. Knecht also founded Bali, Indonesia-headquartered P.T. Bali Seafood International, but he sold his stake in the company earlier this year. Knecht was a 2018 finalist for the Seafood Champion Award for Innovation for his efforts to improve worker rights in Indonesia, including the introduction of a worker empowerment initiative.

NGOs stirring the pot on labor abuses are highlighting a “big, ugly” issue they “can’t impact,” with position papers and lobbying efforts, Knecht told SeafoodSource. Knecht criticized NGOs trying to mitigate the issue with policy work “in countries without the rule of law.

“None of the NGOs have real solution-focused strategies, as they don’t understand the problem,” he said.

Forced labor is the latest in a series of environmental and social issues to be addressed by NGOs, some of which are facing pressure from donors in the wake of the recent Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, according to Knecht. Consumers’ attention has been focused on seafood by the film, with the result that sustainability certifications operated or validated by NGO programs are being questioned by activist consumers, Knecht said.

“There is now a vigilante group in the U.S. challenging sustainability claims by the seafood industry,” Knecht said.

Rather than policy solutions, Knecht said labor abuses can be fixed on the water with a carrot-and-stick approach – “creating either an economic benefit or economic pain” for vessel operators.

“Economic gain for not using forced labor may look like a Fair Trade-type of certification that would be industry-based,” he said. “One transparency tool may be an electronic crew communication program linked to a market premium for certified vessels.”

As another means of improving the labor situation in the fishing sector, Knecht also wants to see more use of the International Seafarers Union, which has a strong presence in commercial shipping. Membership among fishing crews, and buy-in by vessel operators, could be increased through market demand programs from premium markets, Knecht said.

“At the end of the day, fair labor will never be mandated in the developing world with top-down policy mandates, due to weak rule of law,” he said. “The two tools available for driving change from the bottom up are unions and ILO 188 [a standard set for fishing by the U.N.-affiliated International Labor Organisation], supported by market requirements. Otherwise, creating fair labor and reasonable working conditions becomes a ‘mitigation strategy’ with no impact.”

But it remains to be seen if the market will solve a problem that is getting worse, according to Sinclair.

“The environment for fishers has become ever more dangerous at a time when even less is known about what is happening on distant-water fleets. Those not stranded on the high seas have often been abandoned in foreign ports with no ability to access local income or healthcare safety nets. This, in turn, has led to increased vulnerability and exposure to exploitation by unscrupulous recruiters," she said. “Retail companies and consumers should be alive to the issues – someone, somewhere will be paying the price for cheap products if the price seems too good to be true and, more often than not, it will be those unseen workers on board vessels out of sight on the high seas.”

Photo courtesy of Greenpeace


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