When we started building the Labor Safe Screen in 2013 it was a tough sell. No-one, not even sustainability NGOs, wanted to acknowledge the problem of forced labor in seafood. That did not make it easy for food companies to come to grips with it.
Today in 2018 we know the problem is significant. We know it will be dealt with. What changed? Human Rights Watch and the Nexus Institute spoke to workers in fishing and seafood production and published what they heard. Competent authorities in the human rights sphere then summarized the scale and significance of the problem. They include the International Labour Organization, UN Action for Cooperation against Trafficking in Persons, US Department of State, and the remarkable team at US Department of Labor’s International Bureau of Labor Affairs. Its List of Goods made from a significant incidence of forced labor and child labor includes fish from Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Peru, Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, Vietnam, Yemen, shellfish from El Salvador and Nicaragua, and shrimp from Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia and Thailand.
Fabulously, now that the problem has been defined by the authorities it’s time for solutions. This blog is about solutions. Are we there yet? Yes and no. The key to solving the problem is found in how the problem is defined, and also the competent authorities who defined it. The solutions live in the human rights sphere with these organizations.
It is important to recognize that the industry has come to the table. Remarkable strides were made after The Guardian newspaper published its investigative account of forced labor in Thai seafood. Most big companies today have a human trafficking statement. Most have said they have zero tolerance for forced labor.
Some companies have engaged with human rights organizations, for example the Issara Institute in Thailand, and stepped onto a solid track for resolving problems specifically there. Similar casual working conditions are found worldwide. Few companies have partnerships with human rights organizations in other countries. How then can global companies see where the problem lives in their supply chain? Where are improvements needed? Where do workers need safer work, and help to be paid?
The reason the Labor Safe Screen was founded was to help bridge the gap between food companies and the human rights sphere.
In 2013 we learned that on the one side, human rights organizations worldwide were compiling evidence of working conditions in the supply chain. Many maintained direct relationships with workers. On the other, executives at retailers, distributors and importing companies had their suppliers’ word there wasn’t a labor problem in the supply chain.
Before the 1980s, that may have been good enough. But today’s work environment is subcontracted. People move for work. People from impoverished areas often move for work through agents. This work is contracted by large exporting facilities as often as it is by small facilities. In many sectors today there is a tremendous reliance on work with terms and conditions which are hidden by agent relationships. Where insecurity builds it can make a supply chain unstable.
In five years of building, testing and now running the Labor Safe Screen we have learned that input from industry and human rights authorities is essential to marry the realities of the fishing industry with the experience of workers. Science and technology help capture the human experience of the working conditions.
What’s left to do is accept that the authority for solutions resides with workers themselves and with the approaches authorities recommend. The consistent advice to industry is to take risk-based due diligence across the supply chain.
Labor risk in supply chains appears to be complex, and it is, but the outlines of solutions are ever more clearly laid out in the expectations of the competent authorities on human rights. The proof? Read the new Human Rights Watch report. Ask, why would Human Rights Watch continue to invest in the state of human trafficking in seafood, if current approaches were sufficient to end forced labor? Like following the money, read the new Human Rights Watch for their perspective and the seeds of solution in it. Follow Nexus Institute, follow ILRF, follow UN-ACT. Especially, follow the new ILO-FAO partnership for decent work in fishing and seafood. The light at the end of the tunnel can be seen from here.