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The Human Rights Abuses Packed Into Canned Tuna

Words by Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Energy & Environment
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That little can of tuna many people love to eat is packed with more than just protein. It likely is linked to human rights abuses. Take Thai Union, the largest canned tuna producer on the planet, which supplies brands and retailers around the world. Despite media attention, the company has failed to do anything about human rights abuses in its tuna supply chain, according to a recent Greenpeace report.

Thai Union owns Chicken of the Sea, a popular American canned tuna brand. An Associated Press article earlier this year revealed that the canned tuna sold in American grocery stores may have been caught by slaves. A 2014 report by the U.S. State Department backs up what the AP discovered through its year-long investigation. The State Department downgraded Thailand to the worst level, a Tier 3 country.

Greenpeace’s report states that “men and women working throughout the seafood sector are exposed to a range of abuses.” Migrants who cross borders are particularly vulnerable to “exploitation and abuse.” Thailand’s seafood sector has been linked to human trafficking, debt bondage, child labor and forced labor.

Video testimonies, courtesy of Greenpeace, highlight just how bad the human rights abuses are in the Thai tuna industry. One man, who worked on a tuna fishing vessel, says he and another worker were referred to as “soccer balls” because they were under the feet of their employers and could be “kicked anywhere and didn’t have the ability to go anywhere on their own.”

The two workers were deceived by brokers with the promise of good jobs in onshore industries. Instead, they were locked in rooms or put under armed guard as they waited for the ship to depart Indonesian waters. Both men were forced to work on fishing vessels that supplied Marine One, a reefer that transported tuna and other marine fish to one of Thailand’s main seafood processing hubs.

Thai Union hasn’t done enough to address human rights abuses

After the AP article ran, Thai Union announced it would drop the supplier connected to labor abuse in the article. However, it failed to state that it would cease sourcing fish from Silver Sea Line C reefers, which have been linked to transhipment of fish caught by forced labor.

Although Thai Union did end transhipment, a process of transferring fish from ships to larger vessels in Thai waters, for some species, it hasn’t ended it for most of its tuna -- which is sourced from other countries. Transhipment worsens the risk of human rights abuse because it allows ships to trap workers and keep them at sea indefinitely, according to a Greenpeace statement

Thai Union released a statement on the report, claiming that its policy banning transhipment “applies to international transactions for tuna as well as those transactions in Thai waters.” Greenpeace points out that the company’s statement on transhipment is “intentionally vague and uses existing requirements to make the company appear stronger on this issue.” In reality, Thai Union is “not doing anything above and beyond the industry status quo,” Greenpeace added.

Greenpeace also takes exception to Thai Union’s claims about audits. The company stated that its global tuna supply chain is subjected to annual audits by International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), an independent third party.

While Greenpeace doesn’t dispute the annual audits by ISSF, it points out that ISSF “does not adequately address social issues, and their audits cannot be considered independent” because they don’t provide “important information public and consumers cannot rely on an industry trade association to verify that these issues are being addressed.”

What consumers can do

“Consumers have the power to change the tuna industry for the better,” Kate Melges, oceans campaigner for Greenpeace USA, told Triple Pundit. So, what can concerned consumers do? First, they can check out Greenpeace’s Canned Tuna Shopping Guide, released earlier this year. It ranks 14 American canned tuna brands on environmental and social responsibility issues. Consumers can use the guide to buy canned tuna from higher ranked companies.

“There are better tuna brands for consumers to support, including Wild Planet, American Tuna and Ocean Naturals sold here in the U.S.,” Melges said. She added that the “best way” to encourage companies like Thai Union to change is to “show them we will only buy sustainable tuna products, caught by fishermen that are treated fairly, using techniques that do not harm the wider marine environment.”

There is something else consumers can do. They can join Greenpeace’s campaign, launched last month, which calls on Thai Union to eliminate labor abuse and environmentally damaging fishing practices. Part of that campaign is a Greenpeace petition that calls on Shue Wing Chan, Chicken of the Sea's CEO, to “commit to a strong policy that ensures that the company’s tuna is truly sustainable and ethically-sourced.”

Image credits: 1) Mike Mozart 2) Greenpeace 

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.

Read more stories by Gina-Marie Cheeseman