How Companies Can Address Human Trafficking in Thai Seafood Industry

Thai boat workers

Last week, the Guardian reported that Thai exporter CP Foods purchases fish meal for its shrimp stock made with fish caught by human trafficking victims aboard Thai fishing vessels. The fishermen reported brutal physical violence, even murder, regularly occurring on boats. The report identified major retailers – including Walmart, Costco, Tesco and Carrefour –buying shrimp from CP Foods, a groundbreaking link between forced labor in the “trash fish” industry in Thailand and the seafood on menus and in grocery store freezers around the world.

Since the report, the French grocery chain Carrefour has suspended purchases from CP Foods, and Ica, a Norwegian retailer, announced that it would remove products linked to CP Foods from its shelves. While the concern by retailers is welcome, ILRF rejects this cut and run approach to the problem, which leaves workers to suffer under the same brutal conditions, or worse. Hastily severing relationships with CP Foods could also have unintended negative consequences on the workers in CP processing facilities. Companies are responsible for mitigating human rights violations in their supply chain, and the larger and more influential the company, the greater the responsibility. They cannot exercise this responsibility by washing their hands of problems from which they have profited, inadvertently or otherwise. They must first try to work with suppliers to investigate the issue and develop effective solutions.

Retailers sourcing seafood from Thailand have cause for concern, given the well-documented risk of serious, criminal violations of workers' rights. ILRF documented child labor, underpayment of wages, identity document confiscation and excessive recruitment fees at Narong Seafood last year, and Human Rights Watch documented similar conditions at Phatthana Seafood the year before. Both were Walmart suppliers. Since 2008, when the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center first released reports on the terrible working conditions of shrimp processors in Thailand and Bangladesh, migrant workers who make up the majority of the workforce have continued to report shocking accounts of abuse.

At the heart of the problem is Thailand’s treatment of its migrant workforce. At the end of 2013, there were an estimated 3-4 million migrant workers in Thailand. The majority of these workers, 80 percent, came from Burma to work in the most dangerous, dirty jobs, including manufacturing, seafood harvesting and processing, and domestic work. Complex, expensive immigration policies and labor laws that bind migrant workers to their employer also leave them vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Endemic police corruption, including the “the direct involvement in and facilitation of human trafficking by law enforcement officials,” perpetuates the problem, according to the 2013 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report from the U.S. Department of State.

The Thai Government’s reckless disregard in addressing human trafficking is unacceptable. The same week the Guardian issued its report, Thailand was the only country to vote against a new, legally-binding protocol to combat forced labor adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO). (After swift and severe international condemnation, Thailand is attempting to reverse its position on the treaty, but it’s unclear if that is allowed under ILO protocol.) Thailand also refuses to heed recommendations by the ILO, ally governments and NGOs to make reforms that would allow migrant workers to protect themselves from abusive employers and trafficking victims to seek legal redress. The Royal Government of Thailand must be held accountable for this egregious record when the State Department issues the 2014 TIP report this week.

Inaction by the Thai Government, however, cannot excuse inaction from Western companies sourcing seafood from Thailand. Walmart’s annual revenue exceeded Thailand’s gross domestic product by $82 billion in 2012. Walmart claims to have an independent audit system that holds suppliers accountable to its code of conduct, yet on multiple occasions independent investigations uncovered serious abuses that should have raised red flags in any code-of-conduct audit[1]. The labor rights abuses in the Thai shrimp industry and the auditing system used to avoid perpetuating those abuses are not unique to Walmart’s supply chain. The continuation of the problem is an indication that the industry-led, voluntary standards that currently comprise the bulk of seafood certification efforts monitoring labor rights, among other compliance criteria, are insufficient.

ILRF’s research and 20 years of experience in testing and assessing corporate social responsibility (CSR) mechanisms have shown that only legally-binding, fully transparent initiatives with independent inspections and an equal role for workers’ organizations will be successful in ending systemic exploitation of workers. The role for workers’ organizations, like ILRF’s partner on the ground – the Migrant Workers’ Rights Network (MWRN) – is essential. By organizing workers in seafood processing plants to increase their voice and advocating on their behalf, MWRN has secured severance pay owed to laid off workers (including at CP Foods), ensured workers are paid a portion of their salary on forced days off due to work slow-downs as required by Thai law, and reduced the amount migrant workers must pay in recruitment fees by about $100 per worker at large seafood processing facilities like Thai Union.

We urge global retailers to build on MWRN’s efforts to fight human trafficking through worker empowerment by implementing the following steps:

  • Meet with MWRN and other migrant-worker-rights groups to identify steps needed to address the risk of labor law violations in all stages of the shrimp supply chain.
  • Improve supply chain transparency. Suppliers should be required to identify the names and addresses of all factories, farms, fishing vessels or other entities that contribute to the product being purchased before a supplier contract is awarded. To meet this requirement, Thai suppliers should be encouraged to make the same demand of their own suppliers, thus shining light into what is often a long supply chain with a lot of dark corners.
  • Include requirements in supplier contracts that all Thai fishing boats anywhere in the supply chain meet the legal requirement to maintain an accurate crew manifest that is checked both on departure and on return, so as to reduce the risk of migrant crew members being murdered at sea. Conduct periodic, unannounced checks for accurate crew logs of boats within the supply chain as part of inspection procedures.
  • Prevent labor contracting abuse by requiring that any costs incurred for recruiting workers be borne by the employer, not the workers. Ensure that all workers have access to a contract that clearly outlines conditions of employment in a language they can understand, with regular pay stubs that itemize and explain any deductions. Wage deductions should only be allowed for the limited reasons stipulated in Thai labor law, and be within the legal limit of 20 percent of the current period’s earnings.
  • Establish third-party monitoring by independent experts to conduct random inspections and interview workers about conditions in a place they feel safe to speak openly. Make findings public at least to the extent that they can be verified by workers’ organizations.
  • Establish a complaint-driven investigation and remediation process that allows any person or organization to flag when a contractor or subcontractor is failing to comply with the terms of the supplier contract. Ensure that exploited workers have access to appropriate remedies and support services, and are not left in situations that expose them to further exploitation.

These are practicable, meaningful steps that would go a long way toward ending Thailand’s human trafficking problem in the seafood industry. They begin to address some of the causes of the problem, rather than just the symptoms, and will promote sustainable development and dignified workplaces in an export industry that is vital to both the Thai economy and the global seafood trade.

[1]Walmart claims that it had actually discontinued use of Narong Seafood before the ILRF research was conducted because the factory raised red flags in its auditing process, but FDA registration numbers and shipping records contradict that claim. When Walmart stopped sourcing from Narong remains unclear, and the problems Walmart identified during its audit remain confidential.