Events and insight for sustainability

Forced labour solutions gaining traction in seafood supply chains

04 August 2016
Ian Welsh
Thai fishing boats
A supply chain under conflicting pressures

Retailers and brands are beginning to work with their suppliers to tackle the pressing seafood supply chain challenges

As demand for seafood ever increases, its supply chains are coming under more and more pressure. Environmental impacts of over-fishing on ocean ecosystems have been known for some time, but the social impacts – not least through many uncovered instances of forced labour and modern slavery – are now forefront of many NGO campaigns.

At Innovation Forum’s recent conference in Washington DC, many of the major challenges and some of the emerging solutions were discussed by business, activists and government representatives. Here are some of the major talking points.

  • Governments are now taking action that is having impact on seafood supply forced labour issues. President Obama’s order that US federal government suppliers have to address forced labour, and the reinvigoration of the 1930s Tariff Act to close slave labour loopholes, are among the emerging legal dynamics in the US that companies need to be aware of. Add to that the combination of the UK Modern Slavery Act, the California Transparency Act, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and better laws on IUU fishing, which are all having an impact. David Abramowitz, Humanity United, says more about the changing legal landscape for seafood supply chains and how ocean governance is developing in a podcast here.
  • It’s a sad-but-true fact, but workers that can be exploited will be, and the only solutions that are effective are ones that are based on evidence. There is a range of labour challenges in the seafood supply chain that makes it uniquely challenging:
    • Child labour – 19% of migrant workers in Thailand are under 15 years old.
    • Precarious work – no contract or guarantees, so workers are vulnerable to exploitation.
    • Reliance on temporary workers poses a big challenge – up to 80% of seafood workers typically on temporary contracts.
    • Too often work is paid on a piece rate and workers don’t even make the minimum wage, which is already low.
    • Danger – fishing is extremely dangerous and workers have long periods at sea with no access to outside support such as healthcare.
  • Public perceptions are changing. On human rights and forced labour in supply chains, in the US 80% say they are aware that it exists and 60% say they should do something about it. This brand facing concern is affecting the political and business landscape, and attracting press attention on forced labour.
  • Brands are beginning to accept the business case for more sustainable seafood and see that risks to supply and to reputation are increasing. They are asking how they can find enough seafood to maintain supply and, at the same time, take responsibility for the forced labour issues that are endemic in seafood supply. Even for businesses that have a relatively small amount of seafood in their supply chains, the potential risks and disruption from seafood supply problems can be great. At the same time, big retailers are moving to taking responsibility for all seafood in their stores, not just the fresh or own-label products but all canned products too.
  • Robust ecosystems are what are best at preserving fish so we need to move from a system of single species focus to an wider approach akin to the landscape approach taking hold in the deforestation debate. Certification and standards, many believe, are an essential part of the solution and can provide a useful framework for collaboration. But if MSC (for example) increases in size and reach significantly, what are the dangers of dilution of impact?
  • On social issues, standards must be more rigorous – taking an example from the apparel sector, the Rana Plaza factory that collapsed causing many fatalities held multiple certifications, and this lack of rigour extends to seafood supply chains too.
  • Companies have good declared principles, but lack the knowledge to implement them. And seafood supply chains have enormous challenges of scale. There is a chronic lack of capacity locally to make change, including a lack of law enforcement and governance. Translating principles to actual business conduct is the challenge.
  • Transparency in supply chains is the building block for everything else when developing more robust – environmentally and socially – sourcing policies. Good data is the secret to any effective collaboration, as are the right local partners – who understand local cultural issues. Price transparency can be very empowering for small scale suppliers. Oxfam’s Helen van Hoeven and Art Prapha talk about seafood sector transparency and collaboration in a podcast here.
  • Brands are slowly recognising that up to 90% fisheries are small scale producers and the levels of complexity that this introduces into supply chains. Big companies are now seeking direct contact with smallholders so that they can impact them positively.
  • Aquaculture has a potentially massive role to play in meeting the demands for seafood – compared to land-based protein manufacture it can be highly efficient if the challenges of location and local environmental impact can be dealt with. Closed water systems can solve many of these issues, and can provide environments where genetically modified fish can be safely farmed without impacting outside eco-systems. The Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s Scott Nichols talks about aquaculture’s potential in a podcast here.
  • Technology and innovation are key vectors for change. The next stage is using data about where vessels go – such as Global Fishing Watch and Eyes on the Seas. And data scraping: ever-more sophisticated software can help companies identify their risks and where they really need to dig deep to build capacity and deal with the challenges.

The debate will continue in London in November at the next of Innovation Forum’s sustainable seafood conferences. Click here for full details and discounted passes. 

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