Of shrimp & slaves

National Post, July 2, 2014

Retailers need to take modern day slavery in the Thai fishing industry as seriously as they would take a food-safety scandal.

By Melissa Marschke

British repIMG_20140703_131958orters have shed insight into Thailand’s open secret: state-sanctioned slavery within the country’s offshore fishing fleets.

Approximately 370,000 economic migrants, mainly from Cambodia and Burma, work in Thailand’s fishing industry, paying brokers to help them find work. Some are tricked into slavery, purchased by boat captains who face labour shortages. Migrants are forced to work under horrific conditions: enduring 20-hour shifts and regular beatings, living on one meal a day consisting of rice and a little fish, and, in extreme cases, witnessing stomach-turning executions of fellow slaves as a method of forcing compliance. Some men are out at sea for months, or years, at a time.

These men, whose labour enables “ghost” or illegal vessels to function, harvest a mix of high-value species such as tuna and low-value species such as inedible “trash fish.” The latter is turned into fishmeal and fed to farmed fish throughout Southeast Asia and beyond. While harvesting trash fish is back-breaking work, the job requires relatively few skills.

Investigators from Britain’s Guardian newspaper spent six months unravelling the logistics of a supply chain that uses slave labour – Thailand’s farmed shrimp industry, the products of which are exported to Europe and North America.

The supply chain looks something like this: Trash fish are caught on boats that use slave labour, sold and made into fishmeal at any number of factories, and then bought by CP Foods (a Thai conglomerate), which uses fishmeal for its shrimp-feed production. CP Foods exports shrimp to Europe and North America, accounting for 10% of Thailand’s shrimp exports. Retailers such as Walmart and Cosco buy this shrimp (the investigation focused on U.K. retailers, but it’s unlikely that most shrimp coming into Canada is not fed some form of trash fish).

Trash fish in the form of fishmeal is commonly used to feed most farmed fish. So the case study presented in The Guardian suggests that slave labour is likely an issue across the fisheries industry, at least in Southeast Asia.

Retailers claim that it’s impossible to trace complex supply chains. And it’s certainly true that it’s far more difficult to audit an off-shore fishing boat than a garment factory. Even on-shore operations can be opaque. Anyone who has spent time in a fishing port, anywhere, can attest that it’s a rough and tumble world.

Yet if supplier standards stipulate that suppliers should comply with industry standards and International Labour Organization and UN conventions, then independent auditing is a must; and suppliers need to figure out how to ensure that this happens.

Within a day of this news story breaking, CP Foods’ Australian branch promised better audits of its supply chain. That’s the right thing to do. Retailers need to take modern-day slavery as seriously as they would take a food safety scandal (in which case, a supply chain would be immediately shut down and then very carefully monitored).

The Thai government needs to acknowledge that labour shortages in the country’s fishing industry, coupled with growing fish-farming operations, likely are fuelling economic migration. Regulating captains, and considering something like a Canadianstyle “temporary workers program,” might make sense, to ensure that people have legal employment within the industry.

Economic migration is driven by poverty in neighbouring countries. Many migrants are fishers who simply cannot make a livelihood on their small boats, and hope that they might have a better chance of earning their livelihood as a fish worker in Thailand. Global demand for cheap, plentiful shrimp (and other seafood) fuels poor working conditions. We’re all complicit in this story. We need to change this system.

But not through a total boycott: If we stop eating Thai shrimp, many fishers, buyers and tradespeople who are not complicit in the slave trade will be put out of a job. Rather, we as consumers should pay more for the shrimp we do eat so that people are paid fair wages and shrimp can be farmed in more sustainable ways. We need to insist that retailers actually audit their value chains, and shame the Thai government into doing something to address an issue that they’ve long ignored. Given the health benefits associated with fish and its importance as a source of protein, this industry must transform itself, immediately.

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