In the wake of a year-long investigation, food giant Nestle disclosed last week that suppliers to the company use slave labor to produce seafood from Thailand. From the Thomson Reuters Foundation:
The disclosure came as a surprise as international companies rarely acknowledge abuses in their supply chains despite coming under increasing pressure from consumers and governments to be transparent about how and where their products are sourced.
Verite, a charity fighting labour injustices, which carried out the research, welcomed Nestle’s admission and said virtually all companies sourcing seafood in Thailand, the world’s third-largest seafood exporter, were exposed to the same risks.
Research from Verite prompted Nestle to create a system for reporting and addressing labor abuses:
These measures include a system for workers to report grievances anonymously, training boat owners on labour practices and improvements in tracing seafood as well as hiring auditors and a high-level manager to make sure changes are implemented.
Steve Trent, executive director of Environmental Justice Foundation, which has issued several reports on abuses in the Thai seafood sector in the past three years, said Nestle’s was an important admission and he hoped others would follow.
“We need business to own up to the abuses in their supply chains and then work collectively to eradicate them,” Trent said in comments emailed to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
This comes after an AP report on forced labor in the fishing industry resulted in the release earlier this year of more than 2,000 men held as slaves and forced to work as fishermen in Thailand and Indonesia.
“I’m sure my parents think I’m dead,” said Tin Lin Tun, 25, who lost contact with his family after a broker lured him to Thailand five years ago. Instead of working in construction, as promised, he was sold onto a fishing boat and taken to Indonesia. “I’m their only son. They’re going to cry so hard when they see me.”
The reunion he envisions has played out hundreds of times since March, after the AP tracked fish — caught by men who were savagely beaten and caged — to the supply chains of some of America’s biggest food sellers, such as Wal-Mart, Sysco and Kroger, and popular brands of canned pet food like Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. It can turn up as calamari at fine restaurants, as imitation crab in a sushi roll or as packages of frozen snapper relabeled with store brands that land on our dinner tables. The U.S. companies have all said they strongly condemn labor abuse and are taking steps to prevent it.
The AP reports men from across Southeast Asia are routinely tricked or kidnapped onto boats, forced to work for years in brutal conditions for no pay.
Tun Lin, who returned to Myanmar last week, held up his right hand: a stump with just a thumb.
He said one finger was ripped off while he tried to wrangle an unwieldy net on the deck of his boat, and the other three were crushed beyond saving. He was taken by refrigerated cargo delivery ship to Thailand, where the remaining digits were surgically removed. Four days later, he said, he was put back on a ship bound for Indonesia, where he fished for the next three years.
Demand for cheap seafood is the driving force behind the abusive practices, but experts say consumers can pressure suppliers to prove they offer seafood harvested without slave labor. Already, some are seeking legal action:
Three separate class-action lawsuits have been filed naming Mars Inc., IAMS Co., Proctor & Gamble, Nestle USA Inc., Nestle Purina Petcare Co. and Costco, accusing them of having seafood supply chains tainted with slave labor.
Even with the increased global attention, hundreds of thousands of men still are forced to work in the seafood industry.
“Slavery in Southeast Asia’s fishing industry is a real-life horror story,” said Congressman Chris Smith, R-N.J., who is among those sponsoring new legislation. “It’s no longer acceptable for companies to deny responsibility … not when people are kept in cages, not when people are made to work like animals for decades to pad some company’s bottom line.”