I was glad to see President Obama sign a bill recently that closed a loophole in a tariff law that had been tacitly allowing products associated with forced labor to be sold in the U.S., but we still have a long road ahead of us before we eradicate this global issue.
Since the Guardian broke a story about slavery in the seafood industry in 2014, I have been digging deep into this issue with my own company’s suppliers (I oversee purchasing for a $1 billion food service company), and talking to experts in a wide variety of disciplines about potential solutions.
I started by asking questions about shrimp. According to the Associated Press, 90 percent of the 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp consumed in the U.S. each year is imported. In 2015, the U.S. imported nearly 163 million pounds of shrimp from Thailand, according to data published online by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Thailand is recognized as one of the worst global offenders when it comes to human trafficking and slavery; however, it certainly isn’t the only country complicit in these practices.
The President’s bill is a start, but transparency remains a major problem. Particularly upsetting to me is that I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that human trafficking and slavery don’t occur in my company’s own supply chain. Our shrimp supplier’s facilities are in India, which is considered a low-risk country. Does that let us completely off the hook on this issue? Sadly, no. What happens when there’s a shortage? Might our distributor fill in with some shrimp from Thailand? Where does the fish for the shrimp feed come from? I haven’t yet gotten an answer to those questions I can feel totally confident about.
This pervasive sense of doubt sent me to Thailand in November to meet some of the victims of human trafficking firsthand. I joined the staff of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and the Issara Institute, a public-private sector alliance tackling forced labor and human trafficking in Thailand’s seafood industry. Issara runs a 24-hour migrant worker hotline for victims of human trafficking as well as other migrants looking for support. Issara arranged a clandestine meeting at a Buddhist temple outside Bangkok for me and Seafood Watch representatives, as speaking publicly regarding this issue can be quite scary for the victims.
We perched on cement benches under the oppressively hot sun and listened as these brave people told us of their personal experiences through a Burmese interpreter. One of the victims, a young man who still has an easy smile after all he has been through, arrived in Thailand via illegal transport that cost him 11,000 bahts, or about $300.
The gross national income per-capital in Thailand is 206,000 bahts, or about $5,800, yet he was told it would require eight months of work to pay off this amount, and so he spent eight months at sea. And at the end, he was told he still owed a year’s worth of work. He was given no explanation about why the terms had changed, and no recourse. Before he escaped, he was beaten with handcuffs—he showed us a jagged scar on one ear.
One woman said that she left Myanmar because she was told that she could earn enough money in Thailand to buy land on which to build a house for her family. She left her three children with her sister to work in the shrimp-peeling sheds and was made to work seven days a week and not allowed to leave the premises. If she tried to take a day off, the “company store” would refuse to sell her food, meaning she would have to go hungry. She said she never knew how much she would get paid, because no records were kept of how much she’d worked or how many shrimp she’d peeled.
These stories were painfully reminiscent of the terrible human-rights violations I have heard from tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, where I have walked the streets and seen the lot where men were beaten and chained in a truck by their employers. The similarities also make me think there must be some way to apply what we’ve learned from farmworkers’ rights to the seafood industry.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has successfully fought slavery in Florida’s tomato fields by asking corporations to sign a human rights-based code of conduct that, most importantly, is enforced by the Fair Food Standards Council. A worker-triggered complaint resolution system allows workers’ voices to be heard, capturing vital information about working conditions that might otherwise slip through the cracks. The Council’s watchful eyes, paired with a structure of accountability that gives them the power to enforce the code of conduct, have made the difference for workers.
Another approach, the Equitable Food Initiative (full disclosure: I co-chair EFI’s steering committee), is currently in the process of building a feedback system called 24/7 that will allow farmworkers to report labor violations and food safety issues by text message or phone call, or by filling out surveys.
This essential third-party data collection, monitoring, and enforcement is even more critical, and challenging, when human rights crimes are happening in an industry that operates in the wild, unregulated environment of international waters. Corporations don’t have eyes and ears on the ground in every country or on the water. They need support from organizations and coalitions to hear the human stories that are part of the food system in order to get a clear view of what’s happening.
In January, I sat on a panel about social responsibility in seafood at SeaWeb’s Seafood Summit in Malta. I was heartened to see that more than 50 people from government, industry, and nonprofit organizations from across the globe gathered on a Sunday to work on this problem. But despite the number of concerned parties in the room, we couldn’t come up with a clear course of action.
There were some glimmers of hope, though. Sustainability Incubator has developed a promising program called the Labor Safe Screen, which identifies hot spots for forced labor in the seafood supply chain. I have high hopes that insights from the Labor Safe Screen will help the industry find a starting point for tackling forced labor and trafficking. The Issara Institute operates an Inclusive Labor Monitoring program that gathers data from their human-trafficking rescue hotline, then combines it with migrant community visits, workplace assessments, and port risk assessments to identify areas of risk.
Since its inception in 2014, Issara has already been able to make an impact on the lives of thousands of trafficking victims because they’re directly communicating with workers and providing a safe way for their voices to be heard, something that workplace audits made up of checklists fail to do. This type of people-focused data gathering, which has worked well for farmworkers, is an important new lens through which the seafood industry can view itself. Yet we still need to come up with clear enforcement actions that address the issue at its source in a meaningful way.
Respected think tanks have published reports on this issue that offer well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful recommendations to suppliers such as to “demonstrate that their supply chains are free from trafficking in persons.” I really wish I could do so!
There is no tool or methodology for ensuring a supply chain is slavery-free, because there is no one entity that governs supply chains and there never will be. Supply chains are complex, ever-changing ecosystems, affected by shifts in weather, political climate, market deviations, and cultural forces.
This crisis wouldn’t be as rampant if traffickers weren’t willing to sell their fellow human beings into slavery. But part of the responsibility for this crisis also falls to the governments running the countries these people are fleeing. If people felt safe to live their lives and make a living without persecution—whether religious, ethnic, or gang-related—they wouldn’t be motivated to flee.
We can’t wait for governments clean up or crack down. All parties who touch the seafood industry have to do everything we can to work toward broader, enforceable systemic changes.
I want to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that all of the seafood in the U.S. is slavery-free. If you’re reading this, I bet you do, too. Collaborative actions between nonprofit groups, governments, and businesses (such as this one, for groundfish) have already made the U.S. seafood industry more environmentally sustainable, so I have hope that we can address the issue of human trafficking with the same type of multi-stakeholder partnership.
I don’t have answers yet, but we must keep asking questions and connecting the dots in a way that can lead to actions. Because, as I said to my colleagues at the Seafood Summit in Malta: How can we be proud of protecting marine species if we can’t protect our own?
Images, from top: A shrimp-peeling factory in Vietnam (photo by Maisie Ganzler); victims write down how much they earned and how much they should have earned after years of exploitation (photo courtesy of the Issara Institute).