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New ways to fight human-rights abuses in the global seafood industry

  • Slavery, child labor, abuse, and murder are well documented occurrences in seafood supply chains.
  • New approaches to improving the industry’s human-rights record have emerged that often involve adding a social dimension to sustainable-seafood certification schemes or improving oversight via technological fixes.
  • However, experts have yet to agree on which approaches are likely to work or which to embrace.

When Bayani secured an overseas job in the fishing industry from a broker in his home country of the Philippines, it was about finding work that he was skilled at and enjoyed and that could support his family. He didn’t expect to be forced to fish illegally, to be imprisoned on a fishing boat, or to have his passport and other documents withheld by his employer. Even so, had his family back home been receiving his salary, as he thought was happening, he said he might have kept quiet. But when Bayani learned a third-party was skimming his pay for an alleged debt owed by his employer, he decided to break his silence regardless of the consequences.

Bayani’s ordeal lasted for months during which he feared for his own wellbeing and that of his family. But because he had access to a mobile phone and a former employer who had leverage with his current employer, he eventually escaped his ordeal. Many other fishers in the global fishing industry aren’t so lucky. Bayani was not kidnapped and enslaved. He did not witness murder, child labor, or sexual abuse — all well documented occurrences in seafood supply chains.

Human-rights abuses in the seafood industry have grabbed headlines, causing governments, NGOs, businesses, and individual consumers to consider a more holistic view of sustainability — one that incorporates social as well as environmental responsibility. Recently, new approaches to improving the industry’s human-rights record have emerged. These often involve adding a social dimension to sustainable-seafood certification schemes or improving oversight via technological fixes. However, experts have yet to agree on which approaches are likely to work or which to embrace, given how bad the situation is.

Victims of trafficking identified through an Indonesian government investigation into slavery on fishing vessels in its waters last year. More than 1,300 trafficking victims were repatriated to their home countries as a result. Photo courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.
Victims of trafficking identified through an Indonesian government investigation into slavery on fishing vessels in its waters last year. More than 1,300 trafficking victims were repatriated to their home countries. Photo courtesy of the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.

“It’s hard to fathom the extent of exploitation that’s happening in seafood supply chains around the world,” Shawn MacDonald, senior program director at the Massachusetts-based labor-rights NGO Verité, told Mongabay. “We see severe exploitation — human trafficking in seafood — in a number of regions, not just the regions that are getting the most attention like Southeast Asia.”

The U.S. State Department has identified over 50 countries in which so-called “slave-tainted” seafood originates. Many of these countries supply European and U.S. markets. MacDonald said the problem is systemic throughout both the wild-caught and aquacultured seafood supply chains, where jobs characterized by “the three Ds”—being dirty, dangerous, and difficult — are common. Across industries, three-Ds jobs often coincide with human rights abuses like trafficking, slavery, child labor, and sexual abuse, especially when illegal activity is involved.

And illegal activity is plenty common in the seafood industry. According to a recent study, as much as 32 percent of the wild-caught seafood imported to the U.S. is illegal. Roughly 90 percent of the seafood Americans consume is imported. When it comes to aquaculture, which now makes up about half of U.S. seafood imports, serious concerns also exist.

Nevertheless, MacDonald remains hopeful that seafood-industry human rights abuses can be resolved. “While the seafood sector is one where the challenges seem particularly acute … it’s important to note that there are solutions out there,” he said.

The seafood industry has long been on the hook for environmental issues such as overfishing and habitat degradation, but tools developed by NGOs, industry groups, and governments, sometimes working collaboratively, have begun to turn the tide. The most public-facing of these is the certification scheme, in which a seafood product carries a stamp of approval demonstrating to consumers that it has met certain criteria. The best-recognized certification scheme is that of the London-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which promotes fisheries that are being harvested sustainably and supply chains that can verify that the fish in the seafood case matches what’s on the label. But a bevy of other such schemes complement, and in some cases compete directly with MSC.

Some seafood experts are now looking to established certification schemes as a way to simultaneously address human rights risks and other social issues, arguing that there can’t be truly sustainable seafood unless labor conditions are improved.

Mia Newman, an investments manager at the San Francisco-based foundation Humanity United, is one of them. “It’s our belief that we need to incorporate both environmental and social practices and standards into the tools that already exist for environmental purposes,” Newman told Mongabay. “More and more environmentally-focused tools are thinking about how to layer onto existing scaffolding some of the criteria and indicators of forced labor and other social issues.”

But not everyone agrees that certification schemes should be all encompassing.

“Third-party sustainability certification schemes were a major improvement over the old ways of doing things,” Grimur Valdimarsson, former director of the Fish Products and Industry Division of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, told Mongabay. “I admit that you have to be a pretty evil person to be against improved human rights, health insurance for workers, safe working conditions or some security against child labor. But when this strong call for the all-embracing approach is beginning to halt real progress, then in my view, it is serious.”

As an example, Valdimarsson pointed to an international effort to clarify the confusing profusion of seafood certification schemes known as the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative. Last fall the environmental NGO World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) — a founder of MSC — criticized the initiative, in part because of its decision not to consider social issues impacting the sustainability of fishing operations. “This call for perfect is beginning to halt progress in getting fisheries under control,” Valdimarsson said.

Valdimarsson maintains that human rights issues are political and that politicians should administer social justice. “If they fail to do so in democratic countries, we elect new politicians,” he said. “I strongly disagree with those who maintain the view that you cannot have sustainable fisheries without addressing human rights issues, important as they are.”

So far, no such all-encompassing certification schemes that rigorously address all factors have emerged, although some with environmental criteria have taken steps in that direction. For example, MSC introduced a new requirement in 2014 whereby companies successfully prosecuted for forced-labor violations are ineligible for MSC certification, “MSC condemns the use of forced labor,” MSC Media Manager Jon Corsiglia told Mongabay, pointing out that the group regularly engages with other groups developing social standards for the fishing industry. “Forced labor and human welfare are increasingly important considerations for ethical seafood consumption.”

In the mean time, a similar approach takes certification schemes that deal exclusively with social issues and then looks to append those to standalone environmental certification schemes. One of them is Seafish, a UK public body representing the seafood industry. “I think the issues are so varied that we’ll need a number of tools in our toolbox,” Seafish’s technical director Tom Pickerell told Mongabay.

Seafish is specifically focusing on a project it calls the Responsible Fishing Scheme (RFS). Formally launched in January, RFS a voluntary, independently audited program to certify individual fishing vessels that meet high standards of crew welfare and responsible catching practices.

“The Seafish RFS complements other standards and in particular can be ‘bolted-on’ to wild-fish certifications to provide additional assurances around the performance of the vessels and the crews in the fishery in question,” Pickerell said. Seafish and MSC are collaborating on a pilot project in southern England whereby a shellfish fishery as a whole aims to be MSC certified and the vessels participating in the fishery aim to become RFS certified. “We call this the ‘Russian Doll’ approach,” said Pickerell.

The Russian Doll approach can be taken a step further when it comes to aquaculture, according to Pickerell. A fish farm can seek aquaculture certification, plus certification of the fishery providing the feed, plus RFS certification of the vessels harvesting the feed fishery.

Aurora Alifano, project director at Santa Cruz, California-based nonprofit sustainable-seafood advocate FishWise, supports the basic idea of layering human rights criteria onto seafood certification schemes. She pointed out that those schemes are demanding that the industry develop new abilities to trace the origin of seafood. But she said the industry must go even further to get a handle on its human rights problem.

“Implementing robust traceability practices — in which every link in the supply chain can track receipt, processing, and shipping of seafood — is an important first step in reducing illegal fishing, human rights abuses, and seafood mislabeling and fraud…however it is not the only tool needed to address social issues,” she told Mongabay.

Alifano believes that applying traditional worker-protection mechanisms to the seafood industry — such as labor grievance procedures, empowering workers to organize, and ensuring fair wages — will provide additional assurance.

There are also some tech tools on the horizon that may help. Seafish, together with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and the NGO Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, is developing an online human-rights risk-assessment application that will inform commercial seafood buyers about any fishery and country or region issues that have been identified. For example, one of the standards the draft application is looking at is whether a country is a signatory to the Forced Labor Convention or the UN’s Palermo Protocols, international agreements that between them address slave labor, human trafficking, and the smuggling of migrants. “The tool will enable buyers to investigate potential risks and, where feasible, employ or demand mitigations,” said Pickerell.

Humanity United’s Newman pointed to other technologies under development that can monitor practices and workers’ rights on vessels at sea. For example, GPS monitoring can track a ship’s location and identify points where fishers may be transferred on or off a vessel. Video feeds could provide regular opportunities for fishers to “check in” with family or labor authorities. In addition, Newman looks toward better worker payment systems using mobile money that would allow an auditing body such as an NGO or government agency to identify instances of non-payment or underpayment of wages.

Experts agree that the suite of new approaches — applied at various levels, from the fishing industry itself to NGOs and government agencies — have a good shot at improving the industry’s human rights record. But, they say, there is still plenty of work ahead.

“With these tools, we’re going to see significant improvement, but it will take a long time and a sustained commitment to truly see this change through,” Newman said. “We’re going to have to collectively sustain our attention and our accountability for implementation of this shift toward a recognition of really the true cost of getting our seafood products from fishery, farm, or factory all the way to consumers’ plates.”


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