If a CEO wakes up to a 911 phone call over a newspaper headline linking the company name to fishing by slaves, what should they say? Ideally: “We’re on it. Let me show you what we have done to reduce risks of exploitation for the fishing crew and factory workers in our supply chains”.
If a seafood importer receives a 911 phone call because a consignment of seafood has been pulled by US Customs to investigate ties to slavery, what should they say? Ideally, exactly the same thing.
For now though, before this option has materialized, speaking up is still fraught with risk of association to the issue.
US companies are suddenly exposed to any product ties to slavery. In 2015 the US Department of State cited trafficking in fishing in 55 countries and nine of the countries appear on the Department of Labor’s (DOL) list of fish goods produced with exploitative labor, flagging them for scrutiny under the 2016 import ban.
The first step for showing compliance is figuring out the supply chain and prioritizing the risk. BUT… in a market where even the national trade association is keeping quiet on the issue, a company that acts could cause itself brand damage. Any reporting on it (even positive press) means Google could inadvertently link the word “slavery” to the company’s name.
Petitions against the new trade rule for goods from Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines and other countries appearing on the DOL list will trigger seafood inspections.
Yet amid a stream of media accounts and class action suits associating the US seafood industry to modern day slavery, and even an Executive Order obliging federal contractors to certify they’ll act to eliminate recruitment fees, ID confiscation and so on, US companies largely have not initiated due diligence measures.
Further, ‘acting’ is not simple for US retailers and importers who may purchase up to 100 species of fish from close to 200 fisheries worldwide. Their seafood departments often lack the domain expertise, information and tools that would allow them to understand trafficking risks within their supply chains and to proactively work with them to reduce and mitigate the risk of buying illegal products that could lead to brand damage, lawsuits, broken relationships and supply chains and lost supplies.
WHAT CAN BUSINESS DO?
There are things businesses can do to reduce their own risks. These are not necessarily the same things as are needed to reduce risks of slavery for the human beings held captive and unpaid in seafood work. Both need urgent progress.
Many sectors have gone through it and offer clear lessons. Seafood is tricky due to the intricacies of trading across multiple platforms and watery geographies. However, two things are constant:
1.) Companies who can show they are already doing something will fare better than if they were doing nothing.
When a particular shipment is tied to a particular facility and an association is made, where companies are doing more ‘stuff’, that will be considered a mitigating circumstance, according to Shawn Macdonald from Verite. Customs officials (Inspections and Customs Enforcement-ICE) will be looking at how to trace products from high risk origins. They will make associations based on the evidence. In US investigations, companies who link their risk profile to product tracing look better than if they didn’t.
What ‘stuff’ also reduce risks of slavery — in any meaningful way for real people??
2.) Ultimately, the only way the promises stick from certifications or codes of conduct is when all of the elements are pushed down through contracts.
Understanding there is no simple way to create an assurance of completely eliminating slavery from fishing and fish processing, seafood buyers now have the challenge of proving they don’t condone it passively in their purchasing.
Contact us for assistance.