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Forced Labor and Worker Rights in Seafood Supply Chains

By: Dave Love

I was first introduced to labor rights in the food industry after watching the documentary Food Chain$. The film, which was screened in Baltimore, exposes the plight of Immokalee tomato pickers, organized by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and their goal of raising wages by a penny a pound for tomatoes picked in Florida. They were successful in convincing most retailers and wholesalers to meet their demands, and CIW received national attention when the Obama Administration issued them a Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons. These high-profile campaigns are raising awareness among consumers and challenging food companies to discuss labor rights.

The issue of labor rights is far from limited to tomatoes in Florida. At the North American Seafood Expo, how these challenges surface in the seafood industry were the focus of several conference sessions. Forced labor has been covered since a 2014 exposé in The Guardian. UK reporters found that Thai fishing boat captains were holding men, often from Burma and Myanmar, against their will to catch fish that were later used as shrimp feed. These shrimp were raised and sold to consumers in the United States and Europe, meaning that consumers were unknowingly supporting slavery in the seafood supply chain. Reports of abuse in the Thai shrimp industry surfaced much earlier in the labor rights community, as early as 2008, in a report called “The True Cost of Shrimp,” by the Solidarity Center.

While no industry is free of blemishes, jobs in the seafood industry are known to be “dirty, dangerous, and difficult,” says Shawn MacDonald of Verité, a labor rights non-profit, making them less desirable for a domestic workforce. Therefore, many workers in the global seafood industry come from groups with a history of exploitation such as migrant workers, minority ethnic and religious groups, and women. In addition, workers are often physically or geographically isolated, such as on a rural farm or fishing boat out to sea for months at a time, which makes labor abuses harder to see and track. As a result of these compounding factors, MacDonald says, “[seafood] supply chains have endemic problems” when it comes to labor rights.

At the Seafood Expo, the organizers of a session called “Rights Abuses in the Seafood Supply Chain” invited Francisca Partillo, a Latina worker at a Massachusetts fish processing plant, to share her personal story about working conditions. She spoke through a translator to recount the physical, psychological, and economic strain that her job places on her and her family. In particular, she described shifts lasting up to 19 hours, repetitive use injuries, and a slip-and-fall that resulted in a broken wrist and nearly two years of unemployment. Following these events, she learned about options for labor organizing among other food chain workers. She was fired a few months ago, apparently for organizing her coworkers to form a union.

Elvis Mendez of the National Guestworker Alliance pointed to similar labor issues facing migrant workers in other parts of the domestic seafood industry. After hurricane Katrina, the crayfish industry in Louisiana needed to hire new workers and often lured migrant workers with the promise of $ 15 per hour wages. Workers paid as much as $10,000 to enter the U.S. and sign on for these jobs. To their surprise, the workers instead received lower than expected wages, dangerous working conditions including reported threats of violence from supervisors, no overtime or paid sick days, and substandard housing (NGA 2012). As a result of these claims, Wal-Mart dropped the crayfish supplier and federal agencies are investigating the matter (NYT op-ed).

At the “Rights Abuses in the Seafood Supply Chain” session, Kirill Buketov of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers Association pointed to several ongoing international examples:

  • In Morocco, government laws ban worker organizing and led to retribution punishment for labor organizers at a cannery
  • In the Philippines, processing plants are becoming decentralized and outsource work to mini-processing plants located in homes and villages with unchecked labor laws and food safety inspections
  • In Indonesia, dozens of tuna fishers are currently held in prison because their employer, Citro Mina, a Philippines-based company, failed to submit permits for fishing in Indonesia. The company has failed to bail out the workers from jail.

What was striking about these stories is that they share a common thread: due to globalization and global connectivity, labor rights is now cast into the spotlight, much like environmental sustainability issues were in the 1990s and 2000s..

Some in the seafood community are now including labor rights as part of seafood sustainability.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program, a consumer-facing third party seafood rating systems that traditionally focuses on ecosystem health (such as overfishing, bycatch, and habitat damage), now sees worker rights challenges in seafood as something that consumers need to know about. Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, a business-facing NGO focusing on traceability and sustainability in supply chains, has also taken on worker rights issues as part of its umbrella of information they communicate with businesses. Seafish, a UK government-supported group, sees worker abuses as key to assessing risks for seafood companies. For example, Mars and Nestlé are being sued by consumers for using forced labor in their supply chains. These groups and others are shining a light on workers at the production and processing levels, taking what was once strictly a labor union issue, and making it relevant for the seafood industry writ large.

Labor abuses are not specific to the seafood industry, and can happen among other food chain workers in the U.S. For more, read a blogpost by CLF’s Roni Neff.

Photo: Dave Love 2016.

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