Your Seafood May Be Connected to Slave Labor

canned tunaAmericans just love their canned tuna: The U.S. is the world’s largest market for the product. But that can of tuna — and other types of seafood products so many people enjoy — might be traced back to human and labor rights abuses.

The Associated Press conducted a year-long investigation into Thailand’s fishing industry. What the AP found is downright chilling. Its report reveals that seafood sold in popular American grocery chains may have been caught by slaves. The AP interviewed men, most of them hailing from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). The Burmese men were taken through Thailand to Indonesia and forced to fish. What they caught was shipped to Thailand and sold globally, ending up in grocery stores “such as Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway,” according to the AP.

The slaves told the AP that they work under deplorable conditions:

“They said the captains on their fishing boats forced them to drink unclean water and work 20- to 22-hour shifts with no days off. Almost all said they were kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing, as they hauled in heavy nets with squid, shrimp, snapper, grouper and other fish.”

What the AP found is backed up by a 2014 report on human trafficking by the U.S. State Department. As a result of what the State Department uncovered, Thailand was downgraded to a Tier 3 country, the worst level. And what was uncovered was a fishing industry filled with labor trafficking victims. Burmese, Cambodian and Thai men are forced to work on fishing boats in Thailand. Some of them are at sea for “up to several years,” the report states, and are not paid much but expected to work 18- to 20-hour days, seven days a week. They are “threatened and physically beaten.”

Thai Union is one of the companies connected to the tuna suppliers in Thailand. It may not sound familiar but the company it owns, Chicken of the Sea, surely must. Thai Union is set to buy Bumble Bee, which will give it 40 percent of the American canned tuna market. The environmental organization Greenpeace pointed out in a blog post that while the AP did not specifically investigate the tuna industry, it “reinforces serious concerns over the supply chains for the biggest tuna companies in the U.S.”

Greenpeace released its Canned Tuna Shopping Guide earlier this month. The guide ranked 14 American canned tuna brands on environmental and social responsibility issues. Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee were both ranked, and both brands received failing grades. As John Hocevar, Greenpeace U.S. oceans campaign director, said: Thai Union is “responsible for the majority of destructive tuna found across the country.”

What can concerned consumers do who love their canned tuna? Don’t buy Chicken of the Sea or Bumble Bee. Instead, look for tuna brands that are ranked high by Greenpeace. That includes Wild Planet Foods, a company that clearly defines its sourcing policy on its website, available for all to see.

Image credit: David Mulder

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.