Is your seafood caught by slave labor? New database helps retailers fight abuse
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program is known for its red, yellow and green sustainable seafood rating program, which launched its first seafood slave risk tool on Thursday. This is a database designed to help corporate seafood buyers assess the risks of forced labor, human trafficking and dangerous child labor in seafood they purchase.
After years of recording this practice for the first time in the global media, the tool was released after a new report confirming that forced labor and human rights violations still exist in Thai fisheries.
Human Rights Watch’s 134-page report shows that the horrible situation continues. Although the Thai government is committed to combating the abuses of most immigrants from countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia, there is still pressure on the United States and European countries to purchase most of Thailand’s seafood exports. (Thailand is the fourth largest seafood exporter in the world).
For US retailers and seafood importers, the plunder of slavery from the supply chain has proven to be very difficult. Fishing is far from the coast and is often out of sight, while the exploitation and abuse of ships stems from very complex social and economic dynamics.
“The company doesn’t know how to solve this problem,” said Sara McDonald, a seafood watch project manager at Slave Risk Tools.
The new Seafood Watch database has been designed over two years to assign a slave risk rating for a particular fishery to the Free Asia and Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. Like the color-coded rating of Seafood Watch, the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool is designed to be simple – a set of criteria determines whether the fishery will receive critical, high, medium or low risk levels.
For example, a “severe risk” rating means that reliable evidence of forced labor or child labor is found within the fishery itself. The albacore tuna, squid and yellowfin tuna caught by the Taiwanese fleet received a serious risk rating. “Low-risk” fisheries, such as the Chilean Patagonian toothfish (also known as Chilean sea otters), are a well-regulated and protected fishery with no evidence of abuse in the relevant industries.
Until recently, environmental issues dominated most of the conversation around sustainable seafood. Overfishing, mangrove destruction, pollution and illegal fishing determine whether seafood is considered to be enjoyed or avoided.
However, when the 2014 and 2015 reports began to surface, seafood harvested or processed through forced labor entered the supply chain of major American retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway, and restaurants such as Red Lobster. Commitment, including the use of stronger languages in vendor guidelines that want to solve problems. However, fulfilling these promises has proven to be even harder. Traceability alone is not enough. So far, retailers have few tools to make it easier to determine which fisheries actually have higher risk of human rights violations.
This is the seafood observation and the lament that others have heard.
“These companies know that their supply chains are opaque. They are obviously embarrassed and humiliated by being summoned,” said Duncan Jepson, founder of Free Asia, a non-governmental organization focused on preventing human trafficking. He added that the motivation for companies to use the new seafood watch tools is obvious. “From our perspective, the question now is, do you want to get involved or reach out to those who profit from these types of environments?”
Maisie Ganzler is the Chief Strategy and Brand Officer of BonAppétit Management Company, overseeing food service companies’ supply chain and procurement standards. She said that it is difficult for any company to guarantee that the products it buys are produced without a slave labor force. Distance, language and cultural barriers, and the dark supply chain that seafood has repeatedly changed hands – have made the problem even more difficult. She said that the US country of origin labeling system marked the location of canned tuna, but did not capture it, but also caused the waters to become chaotic.
“Then your fraud is widespread, I don’t mean species fraud,” Ganzler said. “If you are willing to enslave another person or throw workers on board, are you willing to forge the documents attached to the fish? Probably. These are the most distant problems in the world. It is very difficult.”
Seafood Watch McDonald’s said the data behind the new risk tool comes from reliable government and media coverage of known abuses; the incidence of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; the number of days of fishing at sea; and more. The tool also considers other indicators, such as whether there is evidence of forced labour, human trafficking and child labour in other sectors of a country, such as forestry, agriculture and aquaculture. This adds to the possibility that these abuses may occur in fisheries, she said.
Unlike the aquarium’s seafood watch application, the new seafood slavery risk tool does not recommend retailers to buy one species rather than another. Instead, “we say: By working with suppliers to change their practices, staying, participating and creating industry changes,” McDonald said. “Through seafood observation, we have a lot of advice on what to buy and not to buy, but it is very different from human rights abuse. If you resist or avoid or stop buying, it will push it underground. Everyone we talk to Human rights experts say that you can’t resist, you have to put it in the sun. This is the only way to make a difference.”
But many retailers are already upset about publicly talking about slavery in the seafood industry, and it’s unclear how they will solve these problems with their customers. Kroger, Safeway, Whole Foods, Hy-Vee, Walmart and Red Lobster did not respond or reject our interview request for this story.
Ocean Outcomes CEO Dick Jones said: “Retailers will not go out to discuss the fact that there are labor rights issues in the supply chain, but retailers must stay in the game and continue to participate.” An international NGO dedicated to improving Fisheries and fish farms in Northeast Asia. He likened it to the regular testing of E. coli in ground beef by retailers. “They didn’t tell their customers that there was a risk. They just did it because it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Other groups are also developing tools to help companies avoid human rights violations in the supply chain. The enslavement and trafficking risk template is an open source project by the Social Responsibility Alliance, designed to help companies build a sense of social responsibility in the supply chain. The Labor Safe Screen, developed by Sustainability Incubator, is specifically targeted at seafood products.
“The reality is that no company can now 100% determine that there is no slavery in the supply chain,” Ganzler said. “All companies need to work together to solve this problem and the government. This is indeed a question that the government must take action.”