US government, companies face complicated path to removing Uyghur labor from seafood supply chain

Two Uyghurs photographed as part of a United Nations investigation

In the wake of the Outlaw Ocean project report headed up by Ian Urbina – which found evidence of Uyghur and forced labor inside the seafood supply chain – governments and companies alike have kickstarted efforts to stop the current issues outlined in the report and determine how to prevent future incidents.

The report, the result of years of investigation across the seafood supply chain, found evidence that companies inside China have used labor from China’s ethnic Uyghur minority – a practice made illegal by the Ugyhur Forced Labor Protection Act (UFLPA) in 2021. It also found evidence that seafood sourced from distant water fishing vessels using forced labor managed to make it into the U.S. supply chain.  

The reaction to the report across the seafood industry was almost immediate. Within a day, High Liner Foods – which was named in the report as sourcing seafood from a Chinese company implicated in using Uyghur labor – announced it cut all ties to the seafood companies Outlaw Ocean referenced. Retailer Albertsons dropped the flounder and yellowtail sole products from High Liner Foods associated with Uyghur labor even earlier than that, according to the open-source discussions made public by the Outlaw Ocean Project.

News of other companies cutting ties quickly followed. Nissui’s subsidiary Cité Marine commissioned an audit and ceased being supplied by the factory named in the report. Cape May, New Jersey, U.S.A.-based Lund’s Fisheries followed soon after, cutting ties with the Chinese supplier the Outlaw Ocean project named as a user of forced labor.  

Government reactions were also swift. Two U.S. lawmakers – representatives Raul M. Grijalva and Jared Huffman – wrote the Customs and Border Patrol agency, calling for it to use the full authority of the UFLPA to investigate the reports and enforce violations. The two lawmakers also wrote to Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and NOAA calling for action. The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China also scheduled a hearing – occurring on 24 October – to receive recommendations on how the U.S. can take action to ensure Uyghur labor is removed from seafood supply chains.

The swift reaction of many companies, Oceana Campaign Director Max Valentine told SeafoodSource, was heartening and evidence that companies in the seafood industry are striving to improve labor issues in the supply chain.

“I think it’s great that we’re seeing the rise of corporate due diligence, of people taking control of their own organizations and companies taking control of their own supply chains,” she said.

Companies and third-party organizations, however, can only go so far. The inability of third-party audits to discover evidence of Uyghur and forced labor in the seafood supply chain was highlighted by the Outlaw Ocean Report – a number of social audits by the MSC, ASC, and BRC all missed the evidence of forced labor even though some of the companies named in the report had obtained one of the certifications.

Companies and NGOs missing the evidence that Outlaw Ocean didn’t is less an example of poor performance on their part, and more an example of how difficult it can be to truly find and prevent forced labor within the supply chain, seafood traceability company Goldfish Co-Founder and CEO Celeste Leroux told SeafoodSource.

“What I learned from Ian Urbina’s reporting, is that actually finding those problems requires way more than even government resources allow,” she said. “It was a monster investment, and it’s not scalable, it’s not repeatable, but every time somebody shows a case like this, it can create a sense that if it’s done once it’s repeatable.”

Valentine also said third-party inspections and a company’s efforts can only go so far as to prevent forced labor. 

“It doesn’t quite have the power behind it as a law or regulation that mandates specific things,” she said.

If companies and third-party audits are unable to completely root out forced labor in the seafood supply chain, that leaves governmental intervention ... 

Photo courtesy of the U.N. Human Rights Office

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