BLOOM calls on companies to end human rights abuses in the tuna industry

Published on
September 7, 2023
An image provided by BLOOM of a tuna can being held by

This is part one of a two-part series detailing human rights violations in the tuna industry. Part two explores BLOOM's calls to the industry and government for action.

Debt bondage, passport confiscation, as well as physical, sexual, and verbal abuse are just a few human rights violations that tuna companies are failing to address on their fishing vessels and in processing plants contributing to their supply chains, according to a new report.

BLOOM, a nonprofit headquartered in Paris, France, with the mission of preserving marine environments and supporting social justice in the fishing sector, published a report earlier this summer titled “Canned Brutality: Human rights abuses in the tuna industry.”

The report, completed in partnership with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, details how many tuna products appearing on European shelves stem from supply chains that feature workers on fishing vessels and in processing plants who are subjected to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, forced labor, and discrimination, as well as alleged instances of child abuse, among other rights infringements.

“Today, it is indeed difficult for consumers to ensure that the tuna they consume is environmentally and socially sustainable, especially if it comes from certain regions or if it is caught using certain techniques, such as seine fishing under fish aggregation devices. What we can suggest is to diversify the fish one consumes, preferring the consumption of local species, fished and marketed in local circuits and employing small artisanal fishermen and not large industrial vessels,” BLOOM Campaign Head Alessandro Manzotti said.

The report covered the tuna sector in the Pacific and Indian oceans, focusing on abuses that occurred in the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand. Though these issues are not unique to Southeast Asia, some of the biggest tuna firms are based in Taiwan and Thailand, Manzotti said.

“What we want to emphasize with our report is that abusive practices are still too widespread and the industry is not making enough effort to put an end to them,” Manzotti said. “As long as the large commercial players in the industry are not made fully accountable to the law for the practices that take place in their supply chain, they will not have the motivation to engage in a reform of their commercial and supply policies.”

Tuna are highly migratory fish, and many tuna vessels remain isolated for long periods of time in remote areas of the ocean, allowing worker abuse to occur with little to no oversight. The abuse can take the form of lack of safety equipment in hazardous conditions, denial of medication, excessive work of up to 20 hours a day, and lack of access to food and clean water. And some tuna vessels employ a form of abuse known as debt bondage, a common practice in which workers must work off exorbitant recruitment fees before receiving payment, according to BLOOM.

“It all boils down to the economic model on which industrial tuna fishing is based. Needing to maximize yields and, consequently, catches, in order to remain competitive, players in the sector have embarked on a race for intensive fishing that is decimating stocks,” Manzotti said. “Faced with the depletion of the resource, forced to fish farther and farther away, keeping fishing boats as long as possible and at the lowest cost, fishing actors are incentivized to use practices such as … the use of underpaid labor.”

At-sea workers are not alone in suffering this abuse. Women comprise 90 percent of land-based seafood processing facility labor in the areas studied and often work under hazardous conditions, enduring sexual harassment and violence, discrimination, and more.

BLOOM’s report found several tuna companies continue to source from vessels known for abuses and provide ... 

Photo courtesy of BLOOM

Contributing editor reporting from Hawaii, U.S.A.

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