Oceans of Crime

To eliminate slavery from the food supply chain, we need to learn how to search for it

Non-profits and news organizations have uncovered egregious human rights abuses in the seafood industry that urgently need to be addressed by both government and business.

But the problem has to be attacked in the right way if it's going to be stopped, and that means understanding how to find it.

There's a large body of evidence that Southeast Asian migration among workers in low-skilled industries such as seafood fishing is positive overall — not only for millions of migrants and their families, but also for businesses producing U.S.- and Europe-bound products. For concerned retailers and consumers who want to avoid food tainted by slavery, the question is, "merchants that treat their workers well?"

There can be thousands of migrant workers aboard fishing vessels, in small production plants, on farms, and within factories associated with the production of just a single bag of shrimp. So the first problem we have to solve is finding the human trafficking within these very complex supply chains.

"Stable production of export commodities depends on a highly productive migrant workforce, often kept in place through legal, physical or financial coercion — but not as often by physical abuse, because that would hurt health and productivity."

Issara Institute conducted a groundbreaking study to zero in on that problem for the fishing industry, and the findings provided an enlightening but sobering view of what labor trafficking in supply chains looks like.

Of the hundreds of fishermen we interviewed across Thailand, overwork with illegally excessive hours, illegally low pay, and debt bondage — key elements of human trafficking — were widespread, impacting more than 75 percent of respondents at some point over the past five years. However, rates of physical abuse and violence — one of the primary indicators of human trafficking in the eyes of government — was found to be significantly less prevalent, directly affecting only 18 percent of fishermen interviewed.

With all the media reports about violence, murder and slavery at sea, those findings may come as a surprise to some people. However, they make sense from an economic perspective: Labor shortages are severe in countries like Thailand and Malaysia, where most of the local population does not to want to do "3D" (dirty, dangerous, demanding) jobs. Stable production of export commodities depends on a highly productive migrant workforce, often kept in place through legal, physical or financial coercion — but not as often by physical abuse, because that would hurt health and productivity.

To fix the problem, understand it

Governments and businesses would dramatically improve their ability to identify and suppress human trafficking if they focused on the subtler "invisible" abuses of power, discrimination, debt bondage, and financial coercion that actually keep workers enslaved, rather than on "traditional" notions of slavery such as physical abuse.

It has been remarkable, in Issara Institute's work with global brands and retailers to improve labor conditions in their Asian supply chains, that most serious cases of labor abuse that we uncovered and remedied (over 5,000 in the past year) had taken place in recently audited facilities, and often inspected by government as well.

That isn't surprising, because most audits and inspections look for trafficking by talking mainly to the employer, then scanning workers for physical harm. Only rarely are small numbers of workers interviewed, and when they are, their identities are inadequately safeguarded.

"Thanks to mobile phones, we can now use worker voices to identify where trafficking is across complex and geographically far-flung supply chains — something that was impossible just five years ago."

Clearly, to help abused workers, and to support the businesses out there that are trying to do good, the anti-trafficking and responsible sourcing communities have to change their ideas about what slavery and trafficking look like, and start making decisions based on information and data provided by workers in a voluntary, safe way.

The good news is that this is all possible in 2018: The majority of migrant workers in Southeast Asia have smartphones, even those in forced labor situations, and if they know of an organization like Issara Institute that will help them, they will call or message at a time and place that is safe for them.

We can now rely on workers' voices to identify where trafficking is taking place across geographically far-flung supply chains — something that was impossible just five years ago. And for the operators of those chains, locating the problem is the first step to fixing it.

Hopefully, more American brands and retailers will see that the future of responsible sourcing is now here, and it's already possible for them to give their consumers the peace of mind that their goods are not tainted by slavery.

Commentary by Dr. Lisa Rende Taylor, founder and executive director of the Issara Institute, an Asia-headquartered, U.S. non-profit organization tackling issues of human trafficking and forced labor through technology, empowered worker voice, and multi-stakeholder collaboration. After a two-decade anti-trafficking career, first as an academic then later in the U.S. State Department and United Nations, Dr. Rende Taylor left the UN in 2013 to found a more data-driven, worker-centered, collaborative approach to reducing forced labor, aiming to transform and evolve how corporate responsible sourcing is done — and through this, make a real, positive difference in the lives of millions of vulnerable workers.

WATCH: "Oceans of Crime" premieres in the United States on Saturday, February 17, at 8 p.m. ET/PT. It premieres in Asia starting Monday, February 19 at 1 p.m. SIN.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.