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Slavery in seafood: An old problem gets a new tool

Did you know that since 2012, January has been National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month?

This year, the Department of Homeland Security quietly downgraded it to a day, so you're forgiven if the answer is no.

Ideally, that shift would mean the problem is decreasing, but in this case, it’s shrinking like the polar glaciers: simply changing shape, out of sight and out of mind. Slavery is rampant in our food supply chain (and many other industries), yet very little is being done about it.

This month, Human Rights Watch released a 134-page report, "Hidden Chains: Forced Labor and Rights Abuses in Thailand’s Fishing Industry," which documents the failure of the Thai government — and the international seafood purchasing community — to clean up its massive seafood industry after a series of high-profile exposés over three years ago, including the country's shrimp sector

Thailand's failure to protect workers is our failure by extension: America imported 428.2 million pounds of seafood from Thailand in 2017, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The blame game

The U.S. shouldn't be quick to point a finger at other countries. Hundreds of undocumented workers in Hawaiian waters were found to be exploited by "American captains on American-flagged, American-owned vessels, catching prized swordfish and ahi tuna," a 2016 Associated Press exposé charged.

And long after Florida tomato growers were prosecuted for slavery (thanks to the influence of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers), the produce industry continues to use middlemen who exploit lack of oversight of the H-1B visa program to extort illegal fees and abuse the workers they bring in legally. The H-1B program isn't just for highly skilled tech workers, as this innovative graphic novel by the Center for Investigative Reporting explained.  

When I first wrote about efforts to solve slavery in the seafood industry two years ago, I led with the good news: Then-President Barack Obama was closing a loophole in a tariff law that tacitly had been allowing products associated with forced labor to be sold in the U.S. The goal of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act was to help American businesses compete fairly with the rest of the world, and it gave the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) more authority to enforce trade laws, including those banning forced and child labor, by issuing Withhold Release Orders.

Long after Florida tomato growers were prosecuted for slavery, the produce industry continues to use middlemen who exploit lack of oversight of the H-1B visa program to extort illegal fees.

Since getting its new powers, Customs and Border Protection has stopped the imports of just a handful of foods from China suspected of forced labor, including seafood suspected of using North Korean labor. Thai seafood does not appear to be on their radar — but it should be. 

The Human Rights Watch report (PDF) on worker abuses in the Thai seafood industry contains many observations and a long list of recommendations (PDF) for all actors in the supply chain, from governments to purchasers, many of which are applicable across industries and countries.

The first is to "formally delink the legal status of migrant workers … from their employer." Workers cannot complain about an employer abusing them if that employer can intimidate them and cause them to lose their visa, which they may have gone into debt to obtain.

And in a recommendation to the U.S. government, Human Rights Watch asks that the revised tariff act I discussed above be strictly enforced to investigate and block importation of Thai goods produced with trafficked or forced labor.

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen stated on Human Trafficking Day,

Through President Trump’s immigration priorities, we will secure our borders, enforce laws within our country and create an immigration system that protects the American people. By empowering law enforcement officers to do their jobs and providing them with the resources they need, we can more effectively combat human trafficking.

Given that, I’m not confident that this administration will be taking on the Thai seafood industry — or any other except maybe those using North Korean labor — anytime soon.

Solutions rising

So what can companies (and consumers) do to avoid passively consuming slavery and human misery along with their food?

I wish I had better answers or at least different ones than I wrote about two years ago. But as far as I know, in the United States the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' code of conduct, enforced by the Fair Food Standards Council and uses a worker-triggered complaint resolution system, is still the most established effort to prevent human-rights abuses in the fields it oversees.

Another farmworker-centric approach, the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), provides on-the-ground training and support for leadership teams at each farm to improve communication and collaboration between workers and management to meet standards for labor practices, food safety and pest management.

Nations must also recognize the fundamental roots of poverty in devising their immigration laws.

Backed by Costco, Whole Foods and my own employer, Bon Appétit Management Company, EFI is successfully improving working conditions, building skills for workers at all levels and driving efficiencies on the farm. It is also piloting a worker feedback system that allows farm workers to report labor violations and food safety issues directly.

International nonprofits are starting to tackle the issue, most notably the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which has joined forces with Liberty Asia and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership to create the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool. Unveiled last week, this website aims to inform businesses about the risks of forced labor, human trafficking, and hazardous child labor in fisheries — but not whole countries. The tool’s "critical," "high," "moderate" or "low risk" ratings are produced by analyzing media reports and information produced by "authoritative institutions and civil society organizations."

Bigger than business

To fight slavery within supply chains, companies of all sizes have to do their part by digging deeper and finding ways to engage with suppliers with the help and expertise of advocates. They will have to collaborate with each other and with workers to create standards to which they are accountable. It's a start.

Nations also must recognize the fundamental roots of poverty in devising their immigration laws. We have to consider the circumstances that make people willing to take the risks that can lead to these abusive situations. While we as individuals — and even corporations with tremendous buying power — singlehandedly can't shift the policies of governments, we do have voices. We can keep talking about these issues, we can continue to ask the hard questions even if there are no answers, and we can act with resolve. I only know two things for sure: Slavery in our food system is not going away without a fight, and we have a moral responsibility to keep fighting.

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