When in June of this year, British newspaper The Guardian published a damning report tracing fishmeal that it claimed had been caught by workers kept in slave-like conditions, a public relations storm seemed to have broken loose.
CP Foods—the world’s largest prawn farmer—found itself at the centre of the controversy, after the paper said it bought fishmeal from suppliers that own, operate or purchase from trawlers manned by slaves.
As is often the case when such a PR calamity strikes, companies that had been linked to the investigation through their supply chain network quickly manoeuvred to make bold pledges to condemn the horrific abuses, or even dropped their suppliers altogether.
The Thai shrimp giant was no different and at the time issued a statement in which the CP Foods chairman claimed that instead of dropping its local suppliers, the company would work within the system, using the “buying power to drive eradication of slavery in the region and make the fishing practices fully sustainable”.
Early this month, CP Foods reportedly took some steps in this direction and organised a three-day meeting in Thailand with the aim of creating an anti-slavery task force to tackle trafficking and forced labour in the shrimp feed industry.
Despite this commendable move, there still is very little information available about the initiative, and the parties involved are not keen on lifting the veil of secrecy just yet.
In an e-mail to FoodNavigator-Asia, Will Carnwath, a CP Foods spokesman, confirmed only that the company had convened a meeting during which a task force made up of “government agencies, fisheries associations, NGOs and global customers” was set up.
The aim of the meeting, he told us generically, was to reassure these stakeholders and to agree on “an action plan for audit and improvement of sustainability for the seafood and fisheries industry in Thailand”.
The talks are believed to have attracted the likes of supermarket chains Morrisons, Tesco and Costco, all of which purchase shrimps from CP Foods. International catering companies Sodexo and Brakes and Thai government representatives supposedly also participated, as did campaigners from Environmental Justice Foundation.
When pressed for details about the meet, Tesco media representative Alasdair Gee referred us to CP Foods, saying he is not able to provide information about all the meetings the retail company attends.
He added: “We are doing exactly what we said we were going to do after The Guardian report came out – we are engaging.”
According to a spokesperson for the Environmental Justice Foundation, one of the NGOs that confirmed it had participated in the talks, the key players are still waiting to issue a joint statement.
However, as those closely following issues pertaining to companies accused of human rights abuses know, it is one thing to issue a press release or convene a meeting and quite another to actually act on it.
To use the words of the former UN special representative for business and human rights, Professor John Ruggie: “Mere declarations of respect by business no longer suffice; companies must have systems in place to know and show that they respect rights.”
And while the initiative certainly is a welcome development, especially as companies accused of abusive practices are not always quick to engage in constructive dialogue, some experts say it is too early to call it a success.
Talking to FoodNavigator-Asia, Bobbie Sta. Maria, Southeast Asia researcher and representative of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, on online information hub monitoring corporate impacts on human rights, stressed the need for “a more transparent process that allows for open monitoring and review before we can term the initiative a good beginning towards addressing very serious accusations.”
St. Maria rightly observed: “It is in the interest of a company such as CP Foods to find solutions” as “international brands and consumers are clearly calling for the end to modern-day slavery and other forms of abuse, and NGOs and journalists are watching the issue closely.“
Hopefully, all the parties that appear to be committed to this extremely ambitious goal will remain vigilant throughout what is set out to be a very long and bumpy road ahead. Only then and with time, we can begin talking about a “good start”.