Tuna Brands Failing to Tackle Modern Slavery

Source: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre
Source: Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Published Jun 2, 2019 8:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

Canned tuna brands are failing to tackle modern slavery in their Pacific supply chains, according to a new report Out of Sight: Modern Slavery in Pacific Supply Chains of Canned Tuna from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. 

The Pacific provides almost 60 percent of the world’s tuna catch in a growing industry, currently worth around $22 billion. Severe human rights abuse is endemic, including forced labor, slavery, human trafficking and child labor, and reports of migrant workers bought and sold as slaves and tossed overboard if they complain or get injured.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre surveyed 35 canned tuna companies and supermarkets representing 80 of the world’s largest retail canned tuna brands between November 2018 and January 2019. Of those surveyed, 15 failed to respond, including Tesco, Walmart and Costco.

Four of the 35 companies surveyed (Thai Union, Kraft Heinz Australia, Target and REWE Group) said they conduct due diligence specifically to uncover modern slavery in their supply chains, while 80 percent of companies failed to disclose where in the Pacific their tuna comes from, with only 20 percent saying they have mapped their entire supply chains.

Three out of the 35 tuna companies - Thai Union, Simplot and Tri Marine – said they require subcontractors to enforce their modern slavery policies throughout their supply chains.

While 60 percent of companies have a complaints mechanism, only six out of 35 (Thai Union,Bumble Bee Foods, Clover Leaf Seafoods, Kaufland, Metro AG and Coles Group) extend this to workers in their supply chains.

15 of the 35 take part in at least one key multi-stakeholder initiative, and 16 have policies requiring the company and its suppliers to support the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. 

Only one company – Thai Union – mentioned engagement with a trade union (International Transport Workers Federation). However, a few committed tuna companies (Thai Union, Bumble Bee Foods and Clover Leaf Seafoods) are working consistently to improve their approach to human rights, with measures such as digital traceability of fish and measures designed specifically to protect migrant fishers from abuse.

Human rights abuses – forced labor, slavery and human trafficking – are linked to falling productivity and returns in the fishing industry. Diminishing returns further exacerbate vulnerabilities in the seafood workforce, including lack of unionization and reliance on migrant workers.

Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to abuse due to lack of official documentation, reduced bargaining power, language barriers and diminished safety nets. These factors are aggravated by spending extended periods at sea, during which time workers are physically isolated, with few options for escape or reporting abuse. There are frequent reports of identity documents being confiscated, trapping workers in forced labor; the supply of forged identity documents rendering men stateless; and captains leaving crew stranded on remote islands as punishment, or simply because they are no longer required for work.

Modern slavery encompasses the most severe forms of labor exploitation and it is on the rise globally. The International Labour Organization estimates that forced labor in the private economy generates $150 billion in illegal profits per year. The Global Slavery Index findings show that even in developed economies like the U.K., France and Germany, there are hundreds of thousands of people living in conditions of modern slavery. Yet the prevalence of modern slavery, both in terms of where it is practiced and where victims come from, is concentrated in the global south.