Seafood is a no frills business sector. Traders need fish to fill orders and they need information — to clear customs swiftly, to show the quality details to meet buyer specs. Seafood is also a sensitive food product. Supply chains manage these sensitivities and good-tasting seafood is delivered every day. There’s no fluff, but it’s sophisticated.
This is the basic frame for the Labor Safe Screen, really for all programs of the Sustainability Incubator.
The Labor Safe Screen isn’t a gotcha tool but rather a way for seafood buyers to screen, prioritize, and drill down where needed. If corrective actions are needed among buyers and sellers, we help focus to reduce risks. We don’t dictate or prescribe or rank. We don’t offer a green check mark for signing up. We help companies close out risks taking a “roll up your sleeves” approach.
Now, this approach is nothing new and already embedded in the industry and used everyday for multiple things. Equally it can be used for a food safety issue, for example for managing mercury levels in a finished product. The twist is the Labor Safe Screen finds slavery hotspots. We scan production for any places where risks to business are severe or high because the authorities say slavery is occurring. We are especially vigilant looking for those slavery risks to business which are the most consequential to vulnerable human beings. Where would an effort to reduce slavery risks to business truly improve the safety for producers? We are especially committed to finding these overlaps because our goal is to help investors in seafood to face issues with a clear strategy, and producers are investors too.
What can one company do?
To tackle human rights issues down supply chains to producers, and up chains to regulators, there must be provisions for trading information and sharing costs, or definitely for sharing capacity with suppliers at no extra cost.
For a company with a strong relationship with a few suppliers, it may be possible to close out exposures directly. For larger companies, getting the information and accountability needed will require a tiered or phased approach that shows a little more understanding of how difficult it’s going to be to show full visibility behind a product.
If, for example, you buy shrimp that comes from a large importer or distributor, under their proprietary brand, you may have no relationship with the importer, much less the producer. So it starts with asking the importer or distributor where they get their shrimp. They’re not going to give a clear answer because they won’t immediately know and must leave room for themselves to buy shrimp on the open market if needed. So it’ll mean contacting the producers that provide the majority of the distributor’s private label shrimp and starting to ask about working conditions. They’ll simply say there is no slavery in their supply, so it’ll require preparations on the background and having the right questions to drill down into subbed arrangements, auction and spot buys, and so on.
In some cases, finding a new supply is an option, but it shouldn’t be the first choice. Instead, engaging suppliers and improving oversight can cause more positive impact. Posing the right questions about the origins and inputs of seafood supplies builds accountability and coverage for this issue. Doing this systematically will reduce risks geometrically and show due diligence to investors, regulators, and others.
These steps work because they build a knowledge system and produce information that has value in trading. Again, you could use these same steps to close out risks of many different kinds.
Slavery risks can be addressed in this way by business, but beyond the technical, beyond the technological, we are still talking here about an issue so deeply troubling that talking about it produces a very human experience. The ‘will’ to roll up the sleeves and deal with this directly is not something automatic to be expected from companies. I’ve written before about the double whammy of slavery in seafood. I’ve also written about the difference TLC makes to seafood’s taste. (See earlier blogs.)
Over the past months I’ve been trying to figure out how best to communicate the “facts” about slavery in fishing and seafood in a way which can motivate and inspire rather than discourage. One of the things which needed to happen was for people to see it’s real, and documented by policy-makers worldwide. Beyond that, where does it happen in fishing and how severe? The ILO, US Departments of State and Labor, the media, and some NGOs like Environmental Justice Foundation have taken the steps of pushing the evidence into the public domain. The US and UK governments have proceeded to regulatory reform. However, something’s still missing. The big thing is how to inspire?
How can seafood businesses help governments regulate these matters better? Does it mean starting with private regulation inside some supply chains, where things have gotten carried away? The Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force is doing this. It hasn’t spread to other products beyond shrimp, but is incredibly effective. Check out their website. There are 38 companies signed on. Some of them like Morrisons in the UK are having suppliers complete vessel registers. It’s fantastic.
The Labor Safe Screen was produced by a barn raising. We have had an enormous investment from people who care about moving the dial on modern day slavery AND care about good food — from human rights and seafood experts and terrific organizations like Humanity United. Offering to try help make this issue go down a little more gently is our way of sharing back the TLC. We offer a plug in with an algorithm and survey and reality checking safeguards for risk ID, but it’s not a panacea and nothing if it doesn’t make people’s livelihoods safer, from boat to boardroom.
We are looking for partners in seafood and beyond seafood who see business as an agent of good in society, who respect food business like we do as a provider we all rely upon. Who doesn’t want to eat food made with the best information? It’s pretty personal.
Founder, Labor Safe Screen