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Leon Kaye headshot

Seafood from Slavery Still a Crisis, but Technology Can Help

By Leon Kaye

Last year the global fishing industry was rocked by an Associated Press investigation that revealed endemic slavery throughout the seafood supply chain in Southeast Asia. Several AP reporters risked their safety, and even their lives, to investigate alleged human rights abuses on the Indonesian island of Benjina. The AP won its 52nd Pulitzer Prize while its work led to the arrest of 12 people and the confiscation of ships and equipment worth millions of dollars.

What started out as an investigative report on environmental problems caused by the seafood sector morphed into a series of stories that ended with the rescue of 2,000 men. These fishermen often worked for wages as low as 70 cents an hour -- if they received their wages as all. The series included heartbreaking stories of men who were kidnapped, including one Burmese man who was enslaved and separated from his family for 22 years. Consumers began to call for the boycott of the Thai fishing and shrimping industry, which became notorious for exhibiting the worst of these abuses.

Two AP journalists, along with the head of an NGO on the front lines of human trafficking in Southeast Asia, shared their stories with an audience at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's annual Sustainable Foods Institute on California's central coast.

"We confirmed things that we had been hearing for years about the conditions on these boats," AP reporter Robin McDowell said this week in California. "Stories had been coming out from runaway slaves and other men who had been rescued over the years. These men suffered through 20- to 24-hour shifts, beatings, murders, and not even docking on land for months, even years, at a time."

The problem, said Dr. Lisa Rende Taylor, founder and executive director of the Issara Institute, is a lack of systematic response to reports of abuse. Many ports have signs in several languages with information on how to report labor and human rights violations. But NGOs and international organizations such as the United Nations have no effective way to deal with this crisis.

"Even though these cases had been occurring in Southeast Asia for almost 20 years, these issues were treated as forced labor, sweatshop labor, as in what can occur in a factory or plantation," Dr. Taylor said. The result is that these cases were treated as individual abuses, and not as a widespread problem within the context of global supply chains.

Seafood's complex journey from ocean to table significantly contributes to human rights abuses, she explained. Supply chains within this sector are extremely complex. Many retailers can identify their top-tier suppliers and perhaps even the next tier. But often that fish or shrimp offered at a store may come from an importer. That importer likely purchased from a processor, which in turn purchased that seafood from a subcontractor, which again could have even procured it from another subcontractor. The outcome is a situation where even if a shrimp farm had legitimate labor practices, it could unknowingly purchase "trash fish" from trawlers staffed by forced or slave labor.

And barcodes or QR codes on cans of tuna or any other product should hardly give retailers and consumers comfort, Dr. Taylor insisted. Industries such as the garment and electronics sectors rely on third-party audits to assure stakeholders their goods are manufactured responsibly and ethically. But these are not effective in preventing the sales of seafood with ties to slave labor, Dr. Taylor said.

If only 1 to 5 percent of ships and factories are inspected, that leaves the door open to plenty of abuses elsewhere. Workers may also hesitate to reveal the true nature of their working conditions due to intimidation from ship captains. Furthermore, if businesses can schedule the audits, it is easy for a ship or seafood processing factory to put forth an appearance of an ethical workplace when the reality is far different.

"Audits don't find slavery," Dr. Taylor declared. "They just don't."

There is some hope on the horizon. More countries have tightened their laws on seafood procured by companies that use slave labor. In February, U.S. President Barack Obama signed legislation to close loopholes in the 1930 Tariff Act, which for years allowed these abuses to go unchecked. Changes in the law ended an absurd legality that if there were a strong consumer demand for a product, such goods could be imported and sold in the U.S. markets. Such a porous law in part is what allowed shrimp, which was once an expensive delicacy a generation ago, to become a cheap source of food that could be found in just about every supermarket or big-box store in America.

That excuse is what the AP team of reports heard over and over again as they researched these human rights atrocities across Southeast Asia. "We heard over and over again that 'this is legal,'" said AP reporter Margie Mason.

So, what recourse do fishermen have if they find their wages are withheld, face unsanitary conditions due to lack of bathrooms, suffer physical abuse occurs or and are forced to work long hours without breaks? Dr. Taylor said smartphones are key to giving fisherman a lifeline to help if they need it. A worker may be intimidated from revealing their true experience to an auditor. But they can air their grievances on a smartphone app or even text on a 9-key phone. Dr. Taylor explained that captains on ships have no issues with smart phones.

Enlisting the use of smartphone apps may be a smart tactic now – if it is even possible to educate fisherman about their rights and the means available to them to report abuse. But if the world’s seafood companies and governments cannot or will not take action to protect fisherman in order to meet the world’s growing demand for seafood, we may very well see these abuses continue. In fact, the evidence suggests we are a long way from stamping out slavery in this industry, based on what has recently emerged in Hawaii.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye