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New Report on Forced Labour in Thailand’s Seafood Industry Tracks Progress, Illuminates Pitfalls

December 4, 2019

By Ame Sagiv, Humanity United and Sarah Mount, The Freedom Fund.

It’s no secret that many of the products that we buy and use every day are made by workers suffering from severe exploitation. There is evidence of forced labour in every tier of corporate supply chains, including seafood. These problems persist, despite years of corporate attention.

Today, Humanity United and The Freedom Fund released Tracking Progress: Assessing Business Responses to Forced Labour and Human Trafficking in the Thai Seafood Industry.  The research, conducted by Praxis Labs, finds that the seafood industry has indeed made some progress. True industry transformation, however, is being undermined by a failure to fundamentally change the business model. In short, decisions are still driven primarily by price, and do not include realistic considerations relating to human rights and environmental sustainability.

report is a follow-up to a 2016
that found that the private
sector, operating under lax government oversight, had largely absolved itself
of all responsibility for practices across their supply chains.  

Encouragingly, this new report
highlights a number of areas of emerging good practice and progress.

2014, for example, only 11% of companies had some degree of traceability in
their supply chains; today, 82% of companies can claim to know where some
portion of its products are sourced. Recruitment practices are improving, including
direct hiring that includes external oversight by NGOs. Some businesses have
introduced human rights due diligence that is triangulated with external

the Seafood Task Force, an industry-led multi-stakeholder initiative, has also
made some progress. Alignment around a single code of conduct should make it
easier for suppliers to focus on compliance. Supplier education, farm to plant
traceability, and supply chain mapping are also positive trends. The Task
Force’s auditable standard for vessels also has the potential to reduce audit
fatigue. Businesses across the spectrum are making efforts to work with their
suppliers, including providing tools and support with implementation.

practices, and the progress that they represent, are a good start. But if we
scratch the surface, there are large gaps still remaining.

there are some leading practices emerging, many businesses are often focussing
more on “check the box” exercises, rather than prioritising meaningfully
improving conditions for workers.

are pouring money into certifications that are not governed by binding,
transparent agreements or external accountability mechanisms – and on vessels
in particular, it is extremely difficult to monitor and verify working
conditions, as the factors necessary for effective validation of information
are absent.

remains elusive, which means that accountability does as well. Access to
remediation also remains problematic, particularly in the absence of any
support for unionisation.  

Seafood Task Force too has struggled with many of these same issues; they have
been slow to translate policy into practice or hold its membership accountable for
protecting the safety and dignity of workers.

the report also finds that international seafood buyers are not factoring the
cost of ethical practice into their sourcing decisions, which is undermining

research finds that despite public commitments to change in Thailand – and
despite improvements being made – the business model, at its core, remains
unchanged. Few seafood buyers are building social and environmental compliance
into contract prices, which weakens efforts to promote labour rights. This is
not just a pattern in seafood, but in other
global supply chains

and buyers need to acknowledge that their own business practices allow – and
can actually encourage – forced labour to persist in supply chains.

industry must shift away from endeavouring to meet buyer demand for cheap
seafood by relying on unethical practices. This cost cannot be borne solely by
vessels, manufacturers, and others down the chain. These suppliers are
typically those with the thinnest margins – sometimes entering into contracts
below the cost of production simply to keep a customer – and are thus least
well-placed to single-handedly shift the industry towards more responsible practices.

should be rewarding suppliers that are actively addressing the risk of forced
labour, not penalising them by taking their business either to other suppliers
or markets outside of Thailand.  

good news is that buyers can change the business model. Some brands and
retailers are supporting responsible suppliers to transition to better
practices, with consideration given to how to better share and distribute the
associated increase in costs along the value chain. Buyers can also enter into
longer-term contracts with suppliers that demonstrate a commitment to ethical practices
so that responsible suppliers can be confident that they will benefit from
investments in ethical practices.

there is no business case for a shift to ethical supply chain practices. It is
up to brands and retailers to create one, and to governments to require one.

forced labour requires a marketplace where buyer demands don’t incentivize the
very practices that they claim to abhor.

This extensive report contains eight key findings and dozens of recommendations that, if implemented, will help move the industry closer to the end of reliance on forced labour. Our hope is that the key findings and recommendations in Tracking Progress will help the industry go further down the path to ending forced labour and the exploitation of workers.

To read the full report, click here >>>

Written by
The Freedom Fund