Lessons learned from Thailand

Libby Woodhatch, head of advocacy at Seafish, told WSC 2015 delegates that labour and human rights abuse extends far beyond Thai waters Libby Woodhatch, head of advocacy at Seafish, told WSC 2015 delegates that labour and human rights abuse extends far beyond Thai waters
Industry Database

Ethics and social responsibility in the seafood supply chain dominated discussions at the World Seafood Congress 2015. Jason Holland reports.

Sustainability has topped the international seafood agenda for more than 10 years, during which time dynamic tools and systems have been developed capable of addressing most of the environmental challenges faced by the supply chain with regards to the products that we eat. While efforts in this area will continue, in the background some much bigger issues have been uncovered – all relating to ethics and social issues within the same supply chain.

By now, we are all familiar with the headlines that were triggered by The Guardian newspaper’s six-month investigation last year that found large numbers of men were being held against their will and put to work on fishing boats off the coast of Thailand. It was established that this particular case of modern slavery was directly linked to the shrimp farming industry and that a lot of the resulting products were being sold in leading supermarkets around the world.

As we know, later inquiries that have delved deeper into the seafood supply chain have found many more examples of labour and human rights abuse, including human trafficking, child labour, debt bondage, forced labour and slavery.

“It’s not just there in Thailand, it is all around us,” said Libby Woodhatch, head of advocacy at the UK Seafish Authority.

Speaking at the World Seafood Congress (WSC) 2015, held in Grimsby in September, Ms Woodhatch told delegates that addressing these social challenges, because of their sheer scale, requires the collaborative efforts of the entire supply chain and all industry stakeholders.

Off the back of industry concerns, Seafish has developed a number of instruments that can be used to address some of the issues, including its Seafood Ethics Common Language Group (SECLG) which shares important intelligence among engaged stakeholders, and also the expansion of the crew welfare requirements within its updated Responsible Fishing Scheme (RFS) to include social and ethical criteria.

Set for international launch early next year, RFS will be the only global standard with onboard criteria and the interest in it has been “phenomenal”, said Ms Woodhatch. “People from all over the world have been asking me, ‘when can we have it, we need it now’. That’s supply chain aspirations; people want to be able to tick the box: ‘my fleet, my fishermen, we are fishing responsibly’. It’s about their reputation.”

In addition to SECLG and RFS, Seafish is also part of the so-called ‘Reykjavik Group’, following an approach by the US National Fisheries Institute (NFI). This group takes a two-pronged approach to social challenges: Firstly, looking at government relations and encouraging change at that level; and secondly, at a commercial level, to encourage buyers to ask the right questions of suppliers.

“It’s a very practical group and many of the people that are part of it are at different stages of the journey; some will be members of the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force, while others will be very new to the issue and need a lot of basic guidance,” said Ms Woodhatch.

For the time being, the Reykjavik Group remains very much focused on Thailand and particularly the shrimp supply chain, she said.

Codes of conduct

There has been a clear paradigm shift from environmental to social sustainability, confirmed Roger Plant, ethics consultant and author of the new report, ‘Ethical issues impacting the UK seafood supply chain’, published by Seafish at WSC 2015.

“Slavery at sea is now recognised as a serious concern for the seafood industry everywhere. Though the focus is on Thailand, we have to look beyond, including in our own back yard,” said Mr Plant. “Also, we cannot act alone, we need to collaborate to address these issues.”

Mr Plant further stressed that it is very important the seafood industry distinguishes between very serious criminal practices in the supply chain that require a criminal justice response and possible disengagement, and those many other social issues that have to be dealt with incrementally.

He also added that the UK Modern Slavery Act, launched in March this year, is going to have major implications for the seafood industry, with all companies now obliged to report on what they are doing to prevent and eradicate forced labour and trafficking in supply chains.

Mr Plant’s report, which follows a five-month assignment that began in March this year, delivers assessments of 15 key countries, primarily in Asian regions, that are supplying the UK market with seafood products. It also provides 10 strategic recommendations on ways in which the seafood industry can help through “non-competitive actions” to improve conditions, both onboard fishing vessels and also along the supply chain, including the processing sector where “time and again” he encountered “severe exploitation” of migrant workers.

In some cases the migrants were there illegally, but many were the result of visa programmes that top up processing lines with temporary workers when there is a deficit of local workers, he said.

Mr Plant told delegates that while sector collaboration and intelligence sharing are essential actions, as are more in-depth investigations on the ground, he believes it is crucial that the seafood industry now looks to develop a code of conduct for social responsibility and ethics.

“We are about to reach the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. The time has come to also have a code of conduct on the social aspects for sustainable fisheries. We have got the RFS code; we have got RASS (Risk Assessment for Sourcing Seafood), but the industry people that I have talked to say this is what they need. We have got to be visionary now,” he said.

There are a handful of precedents to steer such a code, but the one that Mr Plant considers the most useful is the non-profit Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) in the US, comprising more than 100 electronics companies that supports the rights and wellbeing of workers and communities worldwide affected by the global electronics supply chain.

“Because labour brokerage is such a severe problem for them, for example – migrants going from Bangladesh to Malaysia for the hi-tech industry, the big companies got some bad press. They addressed the issues systematically, putting policies and the EICC Code of Conduct in place.

“This is the kind of thing I would like to see happening for the seafood industry. There are a lot of initiatives out there, let’s bring them all together. Let’s have a real code of conduct and a roadmap so we can deal with these problems in the future,” said Mr Plant.


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