Time to crack down on seafood industry's worst abuses

Over the last year, a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning news stories have revealed human trafficking, forced labor, and other abuses in the seafood industry. The complexity of global seafood supply chains and significant gaps in regulation have made it very difficult to track, much less remedy, these abuses.

Recently, the U.S. government has begun to expand its efforts to monitor and better regulate the seafood industry, recognizing the links between environmental sustainability and food safety. But these efforts have paid too little attention to addressing labor abuses. The solution to these labor problems will require increased regulation, improved corporate sourcing practices, and greater transparency, all predicated on a sharing of responsibility between industry, governments and other stakeholders.

A boy works at a seafood export factory in Hlaingthaya Industrial Zone, outside Yangon, Myanmar February 19, 2016. One in five children in Myanmar aged 10-17 go to work instead of school.
Soe Zeya Tun | Reuters
A boy works at a seafood export factory in Hlaingthaya Industrial Zone, outside Yangon, Myanmar February 19, 2016. One in five children in Myanmar aged 10-17 go to work instead of school.

According to the World Bank an estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide depend on fish for nutrition. Demand for seafood will continue to rise in the future, as population growth, increasing income, and the rising middle class in developing countries like China and India drive demand.

The fishing sector, which employs over 58 million workers globally, is plagued by human rights and labor abuses. Trafficking, forced labor, and physical abuse of workers at sea and in processing plants are chronic problems throughout the seafood supply chain. News reports reveal stories of fishermen held captive at sea for years at a time or shackled by the neck, and migrant workers spending sixteen-hour days peeling shrimp in ice water, without access to bathroom facilities. While these reports have centered on Thailand, where dramatic abuses continue to occur, the problem is global. The U.S. government's 2014 Trafficking in Persons report documented human trafficking in the fishing and aquaculture sectors of 32 countries.

As the third largest importer of seafood, U.S. consumers, companies, and policymakers have an essential role to play in stemming these abuses. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Americans consume 4.5 billion pounds of fish annually. Their pet cats eat at least as much. Multiple assessments of seafood supply chains of major brands and retailers sourcing from the Thai seafood sector underscore the risks. A recent study by the non-profit organization Verité examined Nestlé's operations in Thailand, where Purina brands, including Fancy Feast, are produced. The study found evidence of human trafficking, forced labor, and child labor in Nestlé's supply chain and suggests that other brands' supply chains are equally at risk.

This means that American consumers — and our pets — likely are consuming fish products that were harvested and prepared by people enduring some of the worst working conditions on earth. Consumers are not taking this news lightly. In the last year, Mars, Nestlé, and Procter & Gamble have faced class-action lawsuits for failing to disclose forced labor in their pet food supply chains.

Eliminating forced labor in seafood is a monumental task that will require more from public and private actors. First, governments need to do more, both in consuming countries in North America and Europe, and in sourcing countries like Thailand. In the United States, Secretary of State John Kerry has launched an important new initiative, the Our Ocean Summit, aimed at protecting ocean resources. This initiative dovetails with new standards proposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to include data reporting to ensure seafood traceability from harvest to import.

Last month, Congress closed a loophole in the Tariff Act of 1930 that had allowed for the importation of seafood and other goods produced through forced labor, as long as U.S. production could not meet domestic demand. Closing this loophole strengthens the U.S.'s power to ban importation of seafood products produced through forced labor. Now the government needs to expand its proposed data reporting to include forced labor, an essential first step in effective enforcement.

Second, companies like Mars, Nestlé, and Walmart, also need to do more to improve their sourcing practices. This will require greater collective action by industry leaders including greater financial investments to develop better, more sustainable sourcing models that do not rely on a system of labor abuse.

Third, governments and businesses need to adopt a coordinated approach, working with advocacy organizations, academics and others, to gain full transparency over the seafood supply chain. Seafood supply chains are fluid, extending across national boundaries and into the oceans' ungoverned spaces. Full transparency will require clear visibility from end-to-end of the supply chain, including the origin of seafood products, the stages of production, and the recruitment and treatment of workers.

None of these solutions will be easy or cost-free. And they are bigger than any one company or government can solve on its own. But given the rising demand for seafood, growing complications in the supply chain, and the mounting evidence of human rights abuse, collective action is the only way forward. By sharing responsibility for regulation and sustainable sourcing, industry and government can work together to protect workers, consumers, and global resources.

Commentary by Nishan Degnarain and Michael Posner. Degnarain is chair of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Oceans and a senior advisor to the Government of Mauritius. Posner is co-chair of the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Human Rights and the Jerome Kohlberg Professor of Ethics and Finance, and co-director of the Center for Business and Human Rights, at the NYU Stern School of Business.

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