Grijalva, Democrats push US administration on human trafficking in seafood trade

Published on
September 24, 2018

U.S. Represenative Raul Grijalva was busy writing letters last week. 

Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and ranking minority member on the House Natural Resources Committee, penned two seafood-related letters to federal officials – both dated on Wednesday, 19 September – detailing the pervasiveness of human rights violations in the global seafood market.

Grijalva, along with eight other Democrats on the committee, wrote to Homeland Security Secretary’s Kirstjen Nielsen, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying their departments have the authority to prevent illegal seafood – which includes seafood produced using slavery or forced labor – from entering American ports.

“As the world’s third-largest seafood importer, the United States has a clear role in eliminating human trafficking within the seafood supply chain globally by ensuring imports of seafood products into the United States are not associated with human trafficking or forced labor,” the representatives wrote.

The letter’s signers included Guam’s delegate Madeleine Bordallo. Last week, she filed a bill that would add the Commerce Secretary to the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Among the recommendations the representatives made is the expansion the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP), operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to ensure imported products do not violate human rights laws. They added that the 13 species SIMP covers represent only about 40 percent of all seafood imports.

The representatives also singled out Thailand in their letter, noting that the United States receives more than USD 800 million (EUR 679.8 million) in shrimp from the southeast Asian nation. 

“In some cases, vulnerable people have been smuggled out of their home countries, coerced into taking illegal narcotics as stimulants and forced to fish around the clock out of fear for their lives,” they said.

The letter mentioned officials from Homeland Security, NOAA, and the State Department visited Thailand this summer. The members encouraged the agencies to brief Congress on lessons learned from the trip and address any steps lawmakers need to take to further address human trafficking’s role in the seafood industry.

Grijalva addressed the other letter to Gene Dodaro, the comptroller general for the Government Accountability Office. In it, he requested a review of the Customs and Border Protection’s performance in terms of banning imported seafood produced by slave or forced labor. Grijalva noted the International Labour Organization has found a correlation between illegal fishing and the use of forced labor. 

The ILO estimates nearly 25 million people worldwide work in forced labor environments, with 11 percent of that population working in fishing and agriculture. Grijalva said, however, that CBP’s enforcement practices do not align with those statistics.

Grijalva noted that Customs officials have reached out to a select group of seafood importers that deal in goods coming from countries known as high-risk areas for human trafficking. However, Grijalva added that questions linger about the validity of the data submitted by importers and whether that information has helped CBP agents enforce the law.

The Southern Shrimp Alliance praised Grijalva and the other Democratic committee members for their efforts in seeking to prevent imports produced by slave labor.

“The seafood importing community’s lack of interest in taking meaningful steps to eliminate slavery and child labor from the seafood supply chain is deeply troubling,” said John Williams, the alliance’s executive director, in a statement. “The actions taken today by Ranking Member Grijalva and his colleagues in the House of Representatives appropriately draw attention back to an issue that seafood importers hope people will just forget. Those that profit from immense human suffering must be held to account.”

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