By Dr. Darian McBain
Today, there are more than 45 million enslaved persons worldwide. That’s nearly as many people as live in Spain. This is an issue that unfortunately touches every corner of the globe, from Thailand to Morocco and Russia to Argentina. In our increasingly global economy, few countries are immune from this modern-day scourge.
It is also an issue that is particularly prevalent in the fishing industry, where activities at sea are difficult to monitor or supervise. Migrant workers can be lured into the seafood industry, promised a better life or more pay, and yet sadly often trafficked or abused. At sea, or washed up in a foreign country where they have no legal right to employment or compensation, we are seeing instances of workers without a voice, without an advocate, and sometimes without hope of seeing home and family again.
As the largest seafood producer in the world, we became a focal point for the international debate around slavery in seafood supply chains. Last year, reports by The Associated Press and The New York Times exposed unacceptable human rights violations in Thailand and throughout the fishing industry. Their investigations recounted abuses by some of the sub-contractors Thai Union had employed. This was a wakeup call for the industry, and particularly Thai Union, who has a vision of leadership in the seafood industry.
In the last year, we have focused our efforts on reform and taken significant steps to promote safe and legal labor. We are honored to have been noticed for this commitment and are proud to have been chosen as finalists for the first-ever Thomson Reuters Foundation Stop Slavery Award. As finalists, we are joined by some of the largest companies in the world — such as Apple and Hewlett-Packard — who are committed to eradicating slavery once and for all.
While Thai Union never knowingly supplied products to customers that were the result of forced labor, we recognize the need to meet a higher standard. Since those reports focused the world’s attention on this important issue, we have implemented a regimen to ensure that we are doing our part to stamp out slavery.
That starts with implementing a zero-tolerance policy for human rights violations.
First, we put in place SeaChange, our sustainability strategy incorporating a labor roadmap that promotes safe and legal employment. Second, we engaged in a traceability program that monitors our product from catch to consumption. Traceability is the backbone of our responsible sourcing program, enabling Thai Union to prove its seafood is legally and safely produced, while helping promote workers’ voice at sea and on the land. And third, we subject ourselves to best-in-class external veriﬁcations and audits by third-party certiﬁcation bodies as well as civil society, working to promote standard labor practices and eradicate labor abuses from the industry. We also work with advocacy groups to engage workers in social dialogue and ensure we are fully aware of their perspectives on labor conditions.
As a result of this system of monitoring, we stopped purchasing from hundreds of vessels who were unwilling or unable to meet our strict requirements. We also brought more than 1,200 workers in-house after ending relationships with shrimp peeling suppliers that failed to meet our labor and traceability standards, and opening a peeling warehouse at our packing and exporting facility. In April, we were one of the first Thai companies to announce a zero-recruitment fee policy for migrant workers, enabling our newly recruited staff to start work safely, legally, and without the debts that burden some of their compatriots. We’re proud to have started seeing noticeable results. Here’s what the AP reported recently:
Clearly some Thai seafood exporters have improved working conditions. One of the biggest, Thai Union, opened a large, clean peeling warehouse at its packing and exporting facility. The 1,200 workers get subsidized meals and opportunities for bonuses.
“I have more rights. I like it,” said Thet Paing Oo, 23, a migrant from Myanmar having lunch in Thai Union’s cafeteria. He said he spent six years working 15-hour shifts at shrimp sheds without a day off.
We also understand that a multi-stakeholder approach is essential to combating forced labor. That is why we have partnered with locally based NGOs, such as the Issara Institute, who provide a helpline in five different languages for workers in our own facilities and increasingly in our supply chain. Our work on social mapping with the Migrant Workers Rights Network led to the development and implementation of an Ethical Migrant Worker Recruitment Policy, as well as a program to educate workers on their labor rights.
While we are honored to have been recognized, there is still work to be done. Just last year, Americans ate 15.5 pounds of seafood per person — a nearly one-pound increase over the previous year — demonstrating that demand continues to rise. The fishing industry continues to create jobs and provide high-protein foods at affordable costs to hundreds of millions of consumers. And according to the World Bank, as the world’s population continues to increase, sustainable seafood will become an even more essential source of nutrition.
We are committed to doing our part to promote sustainable fishing practices that use safe and legal labor. But to genuinely eradicate slavery, we need the entire industry and global community, including businesses, governments, civil societies and even consumers to participate and accelerate the pace of reform.