Last month, the Thai seafood industry was rocked by allegations ofmodern-day slavery following an investigation by British newspaperThe Guardian. The exposé traced fishmeal reportedly caught in slave-like conditions to prawns stacking the shelves of major US and European retailers like Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour, linking them to horrific instances of forced labour on Thai fishing vessels and on the ground.
Almost immediately thereafter came the US State Department downgrade of Thailand to the third tier—the lowest position possible—of its human trafficking watch list.
The revelations put the global food industry and its complex supply chains under the limelight, triggering an avalanche of reactions from the companies mentioned in the investigative piece, and from others in the Thai seafood industry.
Tesco and Walmart, for example, both condemned forced labour and said they were collaborating with others stakeholders to “achieve broader change across the Thai fishing industry“ and “eradicate human trafficking from Thailand’s seafood export sector.“
Taking a dramatically different stance to that of Tesco, which pledged it would not cut ties with its Thai partners, France‘s Carrefour decided to suspend all of its direct and indirect orders from Charoean Pokphand Foods, the Thai company identified by The Guardian as the main supplier of seafood tainted with slavery.
Despite such reactions from international retail giants, many within the Thai food sector continue to refute allegations of slave labour.
The Mahachai Fishing Boat Association said last week that none of its fishing boat operators use labourers who were trafficked or subjected to bonded labour on their vessels.
Similarly, the president of the Thai Frozen Foods Association, Panisuan Jamnarnwej, told Bangkok Post that companies in Thailand’s fishing industry do not use slave labour.
Make the supply chain more accountable
According to rights experts, if modern-day slavery is ever to be eradicated from the Thai food sector, companies need to prioritise making their supply chain transparent.
Environmental Justice Foundation, an NGO working on forced labour in Thailand, toldFoodNavigator-Asia that the magnitude of the problem calls for some innovation at the board level and “new thinking that goes beyond the short-term goal of reputation management to address the problem at its root.”
“The fundamental lack of transparency in Thai seafood supply chains must be improved, allowing risks to be identified and addressed and for non-compliant suppliers to be punished.“
Promoting transparency in the supply chain is also a must for any company serious about its obligations under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which is the most authoritative set of international norms pertaining to the human rights responsibilities of corporations.
The Guiding Principles stipulate that companies need to “know and show” that they respect human rights through due diligence. This in turn requires them to look into their operations, including into their supply chain, to report publicly on what they find and to address any shortcomings and grievances they identify.
Where to start?
The first step, according to the Environmental Justice Foundation, “should be for industry, both individually and collectively, to undertake a detailed risk analysis to identify areas where slavery is likely to exist.”
In order to do that, “companies must have a detailed and intimate understanding of their supply chains, including subcontractors and suppliers of raw materials” and they “must commit to rigorous, independent and unannounced inspections of their entire supply chain, with a particular focus on problematic areas, such as shrimp pre-processing and boats catching the ‘trash fish’ used in fishmeal.”
Will big business walk the walk?
While commending the international brands that have already denounced forced labour in the Thai fishing sector following the exposé by The Guardian, Bobbie Sta. Maria, Southeast Asia researcher and representative of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an online information hub monitoring positive and negative impacts of corporations worldwide, told FoodNavigator-Asia:“It is now time for these brands to present concrete steps.“
“How do they plan to work with suppliers in eliminating slavery? How will they use their leverage to make the needed change in industry practices? It is also important to look into opportunities to work with national and local governments in encouraging effective policies and improved implementation with a view to eliminating practices that facilitate slavery such as corruption and the unchecked actions of recruiters and brokers; ensuring that workers that report the practice are safe from possible retaliation; and fostering an environment of open reporting and, ultimately, zero slavery.”
Sta. Maria was eager to add that companies should see the recent developments as “an opportunity to play an important role in finally putting an end to modern slavery.“
It remains to be seen whether they will seize this opportunity to stamp it out.