In 2015, a number of investigative reports, including the Pulitzer Prize winning series, Seafood From Slaves, revealed serious human and labor rights abuses in the Thai seafood industry. Thai shrimp, in particular, has come under major scrutiny.
Shrimp is an important export for Thailand, generating over $2 billion USD annually. More specifically, Thailand is the largest exporter of “value-added” shrimp products, such as peeled and frozen shrimp. The Thai shrimp industry is extremely labor intensive, relying on manual labor to catch fish for shrimp feed and to peel shrimp in preparation for export.
Despite the need for labor, the industry has experienced a shortfall of Thai workers. To meet the industry’s labor needs and satisfy global demand for shrimp, migrant workers from neighboring countries like Myanmar and Cambodia are informally recruited or illegally trafficked onto boats and into processing plants. These workers provide a cheap supply of migrant labor to the sector, where reports have indicated some of the worst forms of abuse including forced labor, child labor, and physical abuse. These problems occur in two key places in the supply chain: 1) on boats that catch trash fish used to feed farm-raised shrimp; and 2) in processing plants and small shrimp peeling sheds, where value-added shrimp products are prepared.
In the last year and a half, foreign governments, global brands and retailers, human rights advocates, and consumers have placed enormous pressure on the industry and the Thai government to address these abuses. Consumers have sued brands including Mars, Nestlé, and Procter and Gamble for failing to disclose forced labor linked to seafood inputs in their petfood supply chains. The US Congress closed a loophole in the Tariff Act of 1930 to strengthen restrictions on imports produced through forced labor, and the EU issued Thailand a yellow card, threatening a ban on seafood imports without significant improvements to fishing and labor practices. This pressure has prompted action on human rights and labor abuse from the Thai Government and major seafood suppliers and retailers.
To understand what exactly is happening on the ground to address these issues, the Center for Business and Human Rights visited Bangkok last month to meet with private and public sector representatives, NGOs, and journalists. We found that among the experts and advocates we met, the most widely discussed initiative was an industry-led effort called the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force.
Founded in 2014 by Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods and Costco, the Task Force seeks to address both human rights and marine conservation issues in the Thai shrimp supply chain. It is a cross-sector coalition of the largest Thai seafood suppliers (CP Foods and Thai Union), US and EU retailers (e.g. Walmart, Costco, Morrisons), and international NGOs (e.g. World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Justice Foundation). Its membership includes 80% of shrimp feed manufacturers, and companies representing over $16 billion in Thai seafood purchases, collectively.
The Task Force has real potential to address human rights and labor abuse in the industry. Its members are committed to finding industry-wide solutions to human rights and sustainability issues, rather than simply exiting Thailand and sourcing elsewhere. They also wield the influence and resources to drive real change through financial investment and engagement with the Thai government.
In order to really address the forced labor and trafficking that it has publicly committed to solving, however, the Task Force should consider adopting these three strategies:
1. Address migration issues directly: The Task Force seeks to remedy both labor and marine conservation issues together. As a result, its objectives are (1) to establish traceability systems to better track the production of seafood products; (2) to set a standard code of conduct for Thai ports and vessels to ensure human rights and environmental sustainability, and (3) to enhance fisheries management to promote marine conservation. While these are important strategies, they do not directly address migration issues in the industry. Informal labor recruitment practices and the trafficking of migrant workers onto fishing boats and into peeling sheds is a major driver for human rights and labor abuse in the industry. To impact these issues, the Task Force should consider developing specific objectives around migrant labor recruitment practices, standards, and enforcement and should commit financial resources to achieving these objectives.
2. Include civil society groups in decision-making: While the Task Force includes international NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Justice Foundation, labor advocates have indicated that it has not meaningfully engaged with Thai civil society organizations representing migrant workers’ rights and interests. In its October 2015 progress update, the Task Force outlined its intention to work with local and western labor representatives, who could independently validate the credibility of the Task Force’s work. While this is an important step toward partnering with civil society, the Task Force should also include these groups as decision-makers who can help direct the Task Force’s work. Thai-based organizations like Migrant Worker Rights Network and Labor Rights Promotion Network are important representatives for migrant workers and could guide the Task Force in outlining specific objectives around migrant labor recruitment.
3. Increase transparency into how the Task Force works and is funded: The Task Force has established decision-making and funding structures, both of which are important for the long-term sustainability of the initiative and its solutions. Nevertheless, there is a general lack of transparency into these structures. How the Task Force prioritizes action or allocates its resources, and who its major decision-makers are, remain unclear. Furthermore, while it has introduced the possibility of standard membership fees, it is funded primarily through in-kind donations and has not disclosed the financial commitment of member companies. This lack of transparency into how the Task Force actually works leaves questions about the level of engagement and financial commitment from its members. Increasing transparency will allow external stakeholders, including governments and civil society, to better understand the Task Force’s priorities and constraints, align their efforts to support the Task Force’s objectives, and contribute new ideas and strategies for addressing migrant labor issues directly.
The Task Force and its members have acknowledged the human rights and labor abuses that exist in the Thai seafood industry, and they have committed their time and resources to finding solutions. Adopting the three strategies outlined above with better position the Task Force to make industry-wide improvements to eradicate some of the worst forms of labor abuse.
Nicole Kenny is a Graduate Fellow with the Center and NYU Stern/Wagner alumnus.