Seafood Supply Chains
The global seafood industry has created and must now meet an increasing demand for the production of cheap seafood at scale. Most nations cannot satisfy this demand via domestic fisheries alone. In the U.S. for example, the overwhelming majority of our seafood is imported or reimported after processing—90% according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s figures. As a result, most countries rely on sourcing seafood from across the Asia-Pacific region, where an overwhelming majority of the world’s seafood supply is caught, farmed, and processed by a workforce that consists largely of migrant laborers.
To support the flow of cheap seafood to supermarkets around the world, the current business model – in which companies are sourcing the cheapest product, the fastest – incentivizes, and in many cases is actually dependent upon, labor exploitation. Trafficked and/or bonded labor has become a de facto subsidy that enables businesses to maximize their profits.
Migrant workers seeking job placements typically rely on brokers to connect them to prospective employers. These middlemen often charge prospective workers extortionate fees for access to jobs, leaving them with huge debts. With employers frequently seizing passports, imposing excessive hours, and engaging in wage theft, many migrants find themselves in debt bondage, in abusive working conditions, and unable to leave.
Vulnerable workers often find little recourse to claim or defend their rights. They are left to navigate an impossible power imbalance, largely on their own and far from home. Fishers on vessels are systemically disempowered and unable to seek help, isolated far out at sea for extended periods of time. Workers on land face similar issues. Discrimination and language barriers keep workers socially ostracized, unaware of their rights, and fearful of police and other officials. Lack of access to union organizing or collective bargaining, particularly in geographies like Thailand, further erode protections.
Compounding these issues, environmental and labor abuses in the seafood industry are complex problems that mutually enable and reinforce one another – they are inextricably intertwined. Since the industrialization of the fishing fleet we have seen overfishing quickly deplete coastal fish stocks, forcing boats to fish further and further from shore, raising fixed costs, and further creating a reliance on illegal practices.
Regulation and oversight of the seafood sector is made all the more complicated by the fact that seafood supply chains are long, intentionally opaque, and highly distributed. And these seafood supply chains are also extremely interdependent and interconnected. For example, while there has been progress made in Thailand, tuna processed for export there cannot simply be stamped “free of labor abuses.” The raw product is largely imported from Taiwan’s notorious distant water fleet, caught by workers who are likely to have migrated under exploitative conditions from other countries across the Asia Pacific. As such, a whole-of-supply-chain approach must be taken if we are ever to reduce labor abuses in seafood supply chains.
The fact remains: where industry oversight and governance are weak, the ability and incentives to cut corners on ethical labor and environmental practices are high. Seafood products can pass through many hands—and countless aggregators—before they finally arrive at our local supermarkets.
Our history and the Phase I work (commodity-level) and Phase II work (Thailand):
Since 2010, Humanity United has worked to challenge the conditions that allow and perpetuate forced labor and human trafficking in seafood supply chains. Our early work took a commodity-level approach, focusing on shrimp supply chains. In 2014 we narrowed our approach to one geography but began looking more broadly across seafood supply chains. We chose to focus our funding in Thailand, one of the world’s largest seafood exporters where vulnerable workers, predominantly migrant laborers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos, have long suffered severe labor exploitation to meet global demand for cheap seafood.
Since then, with our partners at The Freedom Fund, Humanity United has worked to disrupt this system of exploitation in seafood supply chains in this key geography. We have supported partners to undertake research and investigations to monitor conditions and inform evidence-based advocacy, to support and empower migrant workers, and to seek compensation and redress where abuses have taken place. Together we have worked to create a robust enabling environment that allows corporations, government officials, and migrant workers themselves to work in parallel to address issues of forced labor and human trafficking in the seafood sector in Thailand. Specifically, our aims have been to catalyze market-based leverage, empower workers and survivors, and incentivize regulatory action to counter a climate of impunity.
Since 2015, public attention to this issue has helped spur on an overhaul of the legal and regulatory framework in Thailand and a flurry of activity on the part of industry (particularly the export-facing segments of the industry) to institute better supply chain management practices. While much remains to be done there in terms of good implementation, we see these reforms as helpful initial steps towards creating accountability, decreasing impunity, and shifting long-held industry practices.
The job is far from over: true industry transformation is being undermined by a widespread failure to fundamentally change the way that business is done from the top down. In short, sourcing decisions are still driven primarily by price and other commercial imperatives, incorporating little to no regard for fair labor practices. In fact, as progress has been made on improving conditions for workers in Thailand – and, ultimately, increased the quality of the product there – buyers have simply taken their business to neighboring competitor countries, where less scrutiny and weak implementation of labor protections again enables worker exploitation to subsidize an industry that is increasingly squeezed from the top of the chain.
Given the highly distributed nature of seafood supply chains, taking a single-country approach has its limits. Our intention now is to ensure that we’re taking a truly systemic approach by focusing on the entire interconnected and interdependent circuit that makes up seafood supply chains across the Asia Pacific. This region has spent decades building fleets, developing aquaculture, and investing in costly processing, storage, and logistics infrastructure. Our aim is to create an encircling effect across the region, leveling the playing field and building to a tipping point that culminates in instituting basic minimum standards for the protection of workers. Our objective in exposing similar abuses across the Asia Pacific is to disincentivize buyers from simply shifting sourcing when risk or scrutiny rises in one area. Ultimately, it does no good to reform practices in one place whilst leaving abuses to continue unabated elsewhere within that same supply chain.
Fundamentally, we must get to the roots of the underlying substructures and incentive structures that keep the system entrenched in a deliberately exploitative business model. More than anything, greater accountability and pressure for those at the top of the chain – the buyers who set the price and the standards in the industry – is sorely lacking. Companies must shift away from a business model that necessitates the exploitation of labor and begin to mainstream the costs of sustainable production into purchasing practices.
In the United States, we are not shielded from the issues of forced labor or human trafficking in our seafood purchases. It is almost guaranteed that we are consuming seafood that was produced by illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing or forced labor somewhere along that journey from bait to plate or farm to fork. This is not a problem that we are distanced from – it is in our every day.
We will be focusing our investments on impacting the practices and norms in seafood supply chains across the Asia Pacific. We do not plan to work in every country; rather we are beginning by taking a targeted approach by focusing on the largest producing/exporting nations: Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, and Taiwan. At the same time, we will remain watchful and ready to accelerate action in other countries across the Asia Pacific, deploying an adaptive and nimble strategy that is responsive to fluid supply chains. We also will be working to improve the practice of retailers at the global level (US/EU/UK) and to improve regulatory standards at the regional level. Our strategy takes a bespoke, surgical approach to funding catalytic interventions in each country by identifying discrete areas of need and opportunity. There will be a different level of investment in each country, with some having deeper engagement and others utilizing smaller interventions to expose key issues and stimulate stakeholders to take action.
In the near term, we will engage most deeply in Indonesia where our implementing partners at The Freedom Fund will work closely with grassroots civil society via their hotspot approach.
Indonesia was chosen for grassroots work for a number of reasons. Foremost among them: along with Thailand, Indonesia is one of the two seafood powerhouses in Southeast Asia and while momentum around reforms to the Indonesian seafood industry has been building, labor practices remain a significant gap.
Thailand and Indonesia will act as our two “anchor countries” over the next three years; having these areas of deep engagement allows us to leverage these wide, interconnected supply chains and tackle the issues where they uniquely exist in each country. Our intent is to create an encircling effect that will force the industry to more meaningfully address issues in their supply chains and that will help level the playing field across the region. Our efforts in Thailand will slowly ramp down, with HU’s direct funding largely expected to sunset by 2024.
The Asia Pacific seafood strategy has four thematic leverage areas:
Safer Migration – for migrant workers, through direct assistance, ethical recruitment models and accreditation, and government advocacy and policy reform.
Worker Power – building worker agency by supporting worker leaders, worker organising, and worker-led monitoring.
Business Models – investigations and initiatives to shift the business model from one based solely on short-term profit considerations to one that incorporates labour and environmental costs and longer-term business gains.
Government Regulation – evidence-based advocacy to shift national, regional, and market-state (US, UK, EU) laws and processes.
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