A fishing vessel returns to port after a trip in the Gulf of Thailand. In December 2014, a Verité report, commissioned by Nestlé, found that any company sourcing seafood from Thailand almost certainly has slaves working in its supply chain © AP/PA Images
A fishing vessel returns to port after a trip in the Gulf of Thailand. In December 2014, a Verité report, commissioned by Nestlé, found that any company sourcing seafood from Thailand almost certainly has slaves working in its supply chain © AP/PA Images

The scandal of Thai slave ships

20 February 2017

Companies like Nestlé that are trying to cut slavery out of their supply chain are finding that it is rife in Thailand’s seafood industry

Nestlé is fitting out a model boat. It’s a typical local fishing vessel, donated by the Thai government. Once renovated, Nestlé will use it in a hands-on programme to train boat owners and captains in converting their boats to meet required living and working standards. This means that, unlike many Thai fishing boats, the training vessel will have a toilet. There will be proper rest, dining and leisure areas, instead of the usual sweltering, fume-filled, bare wooden crawl space where crew snatch a couple of hours’ rest each day. The demo boat will not be cockroach or rat-infested and it will carry safety equipment.

This best-practice boat is a world first, a tangible step towards easing the chronic slavery endemic to Thailand’s fishing fleet. Nestlé is working on the project with Thai Union, the world’s largest exporter of tuna, owner of the famous John West brand. Apart from the Thai government, the training programme partners include NGOs and the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Centre. In a landscape that has been characterised by fragmented efforts, collaboration is crucial.

The demonstration boat is also breaking down communication barriers. “The language of an American or European retailer can be a million miles away from that which is recognisable to many in the fishing industry across the world,” says Steve Trent, executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), an NGO that campaigns extensively on slavery in Thailand’s seafood industry.

“You need to spell it out: make it simple and make sure it is both heard and understood,” says Trent, stressing that labour standards must be communicated through direct contact with suppliers through all available channels, including buyers, websites and social media. Nestlé and Thai Union have extensive, complex supply chains. Verité, the US non-profit organisation promoting fair labour commissioned by Nestlé to report on the appalling problems within its Thai supply chain, emphasised that any company sourcing seafood from Thailand (wittingly or otherwise) almost certainly has slaves working in its supply chain.

Thailand is the world’s fourth seafood exporter, with over $6.5bn of seafood exports in 2014. The UK imported over £100m of Thai seafood that year. Nestlé, which is not actually a major purchaser of Thai seafood, ordered Verité’s report in December 2014, publicly outing the rot in its own supply chain, which provided shrimp, prawns and ingredients for its Purina pet foods.

The UN first raised the alarm over this issue in 2009. In December 2016, a Greenpeace report detailed severe labour abuses, implicating the supply chains of Thai Union, Nestlé Purina and Iams, and Kingfisher Holdings, owned by Japan-based seafood conglomerate Mahura Nichiro Corporation.

Poverty has driven many Cambodians, Burmese and Laotians to cross Thailand’s borders. They arrive in a country with consistently low unemployment (less than 1%), and whose native workforce is reluctant to work in fishing and seafood processing. As fish stocks decline, captains work crews harder and fish in more remote waters for longer, making boats harder to police.

Among Cambodian migrants interviewed for the 2009 UN report, 59% of workers trafficked on to Thai vessels reported witnessing the murder of a fellow worker. An investigation by Associated Press found fishermen locked in cages and heard accounts of whippings with toxic stingray tails.

Aung San Win, 19, told AP how a broker who visited his home in Myanmar promised him good work in a Thai factory. When he reached Thailand, his passport was taken, he was forced on to a boat, told he owed nearly $600 for his documents and informed he would have to fish for three years. 

Deceptive recruitment is common. Verité’s report for Nestlé tells how migrants frequently pay one broker for (often inhumane) transport and entry to Thailand, then another for a job. Some migrants are actually sold to boat captains.

Thai legislation requires employers to pay migrants’ permit fees, but these are commonly charged to workers. Such debt bondage is reinforced by employer fees for passports and renewals, and providing cash advances while withholding full pay for ten to 19 months. Workers in processing plants may be charged fees for their board. Documentation is often fake and/or retained by employers while the debt is paid. The precarious migration status of most workers means they are unlikely to seek redress, do not enjoy freedom of movement, and are vulnerable to police bribery demands. 

“Sometimes the net is too heavy and workers get pulled into the water and just disappear,” an escaped Burmese worker told Verité. “When someone dies, he gets thrown in the water. Some have fallen overboard.”

Reporting organisations describe 16 to 22-hour shifts without leave days, limited and dirty water, and sometimes-fatal malnutrition. Greenpeace spoke to one crew who had been continuously at sea under such conditions for nine months, fishing near Madagascar some 3,500 miles from Bangkok. Huge refrigerated reefer vessels transfer supplies and catches to and from trawlers. When boats do dock, the crew’s movements are often restricted as they are put to work repairing vessels. Other crew members reported having been at sea for up to 35 months, and had heard of others who claimed to have worked for five years without touching land.

Estimated numbers of seafood workers, migrants and trafficking victims vary wildly between NGOs and government sources. A broad consensus is for a total workforce in the low hundreds of thousands, 80-90% of them migrants, and many underage.

Thailand’s shrimp supply is 80%-sourced from small-business aquaculture rather than the oceans. Shrimp are fed on the ‘trash fish’ dredged up by Thai fishing vessels, and workers in shrimp ‘peeling sheds’ often suffer similar abuses to those at sea. Verité also found that many processors working for Nestlé suppliers were subject to constant surveillance and intimidation, while some were not free to leave.

Many rights groups have praised Nestlé’s act of self-policing, although UK anti-trafficking charity Unseen criticised the multinational for being reactive. It also pointed out that Nestlé, along with Cargill, is simultaneously fighting a US court case brought by former child-slave cocoa workers from the Ivory Coast. Success could create a costly precedent for a number of US multinationals. Nestlé, along with Iams, also fought off a US class action by pet-food buyers over Thai seafood slavery last year, while a lawsuit was brought against alleged Walmart suppliers on behalf of Cambodian fishermen who worked in Thailand.

The UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act requires large UK companies to publish and update statements on how they are combating slavery in their supply chains. Despite the efforts of NGOs and businesses at the top of the supply chain, improvement is slow, says Andrew Wallis, CEO of charity Unseen. “The [UK] government, whilst talking about changes has moved too slowly and the underlying issue of the vast profitability as the result of using forced or slave labour is not being adequately addressed.” The act does not provide for civil remedies for slaves, but barrister and UN trafficking expert Parosha Chandran believes there might be opportunities under international law.

There are more positive reasons to take action, as Darian McBain, sustainability director at Thai Union, points out. All observers and stakeholders agree supply chain traceability is fundamental, “the backbone of our sustainability programme”, as McBain puts it. “We make sure we can trace back to source whether it’s from the vessel or from the farm for aquaculture.”

Nestlé, which sent a statement in response to an interview request, has taken similar action, and boasts 99% traceability. EJF’s Trent says that such granular data will allow the identification of high-risk areas. “If applied sensibly, with rigour and consistency, a risk-based analysis will allow businesses to maximise impact while minimising cost,” he says. The spin-offs, according to McBain, are much stronger supplier relationships, and improved leverage and collaboration.

Trent says a blend of tracing methods can deliver economically realistic returns. “For instance linking VMS [vessel monitoring systems] data with other digital data sets, such as AIS [automatic identification systems], digital ship’s log, crew manifest, licence, catch and landing documentation can illuminate many of the hard-to-see areas in supply chains, building data sets over time.”

Technology such as electronic monitoring (EM) and electronic recording systems (ERS) is effective. Boats fitted with sensors that automatically detect when fishing gears are deployed can alert enforcement teams. “EM and ERS can be a highly effective first line in delivering net-to-plate transparency,” says Trent. “Such systems have been applied by South Korea with some success.”

Thai Union requires marine-catch purchase documents and crew manifests (the government’s port-in-port-out system), which are currently paper-based, but is trialling digital tracking using RFID to trace shrimp from goods received to final export. Thai Union is about to begin trialling Project Fishbone, a scheme that it developed in European waters.

“Using satellite geolocation you can track to the point of understanding the winch weight of the fish and the catch the fish is going into,” says McBain. “With the catch documentation in digital form we want real-time data capture [through] a connection back to land. Once we can create that link between the vessel at sea and land, workers would be able to raise an alarm.” 

Technology can pin down transhipment, a popular way of dodging more conventional tracking attempts. VMS and AIS can help analyse interactions between fishing vessels and reefers. Nestlé’s statement did not detail its tracking methods but said: “With the cooperation of our suppliers, traceability tests have helped validate the origin of finished goods right back to the fishing vessels and farms where they were caught and processed.”

Both Thai Union and Nestlé collaborate with independent NGOs, notably Thailand’s Project Issara (meaning ‘freedom’), which has also been an important partner for UK seafood buyers. Such bodies can provide impartial reporting through unannounced spot checks carried out by professionally and culturally qualified individuals. Project Issara has a team of Thai, Cambodian, Laotian and Burmese nationals with experience combating trafficking for the UN.

Yet, says Trent: “At times EJF has had to force-feed companies intel and still some don’t want it, despite the fact that it is free, verifiable, robust and gives an insight in to what is going on that is hard to find.”

Traceability and verification require collaboration. The industry-led Seafood Task Force – Thai Union, Nestlé and the Thai government are members – is an alliance of retailers, manufacturers , governments and NGOs.

Questions have been posed about its longevity, its voluntary compliance structure and the extent to which it involves NGOs and worker representatives but, as Unseen’s Wallis says: “Collaborative working is critical, as is the willingness to accept there are problems and they are deeply ingrained in the business model. Working with other businesses and NGOs allows for collective pressure to be brought against the perpetrators, government and law enforcement to legislate well and uphold the rule of law.”

As the UK buys a lot less Thai seafood than the US and Japan, partnerships with American and Japanese firms are crucial. Thai Union is the first company in the Task Force to ban suppliers from charging workers recruitment fees. McBain says a united front is needed to ensure such charges don’t just move elsewhere in the supply chain. 

The Thai government also belongs to the task force. Trent lauds the legislative reforms it has introduced, which McBain says have enables Thai Union to demand information suppliers previously refused to provide. Wider cooperation across south eastern Asia is taking place through various forums. The hope is that the Nestlé/Thai Union boat programme will spread across the industry. Even so, Trent warns, law enforcement against trafficking in the region is seriously lagging. 

Just as important is micro-scale collaboration with suppliers. “It’s only in the worst forms of trafficking where we cannot convince those suppliers to change their behaviour that we would consider terminating that supplier,” says McBain. “In most cases we want to work collaboratively with our suppliers to improve their practices, and make sure they comply with our business ethics and labour code of conduct.”

The next step for Thai Union is to get its Project Fishbone trial running. Another upcoming milestone will be work with source countries and like-minded competitors to create secure legal routes for migrant workers. Thai Union has committed to stamping out slavery in its supply chain by 2020. Nestlé provided its first progress report last November and promises to continue to publish updates. Its partnership with Project Issara will provide grievance channels for workers. The NGO is visiting Nestlé’s supplier locations to implement a labour monitoring programme.

For any company to make headway in tackling slavery in Thailand – or in any of the 40 countries where seafood-industry trafficking was documented by the 2015 US Department of State Trafficking in Persons report – the board and CEO must, according to Trent, be actively engaged and accountable.

As McBain at Thai Union says, “It’s not an additional cost; we see it as the way we do business.” 

Chronic problem

In December 2014, a Verité report, commissioned by Nestlé, finds that any company sourcing seafood from Thailand almost certainly has slaves working in its supply chain 

Captive crewmates

When boats do dock, crew movements are often restricted. Members reported to have been at sea for up to 35 months, while others claimed periods of up to five years without touching land 

Deadly trade

Among Cambodian migrants interviewed for a 2009 UN report, 59% of workers trafficked on to Thai vessels reported witnessing the murder of a fellow worker

Guilty as charged

In 2016, the Thai authorities charged 600 people with human trafficking offences. Only 43 of them were involved in exploitation in fishing

From the high sea to cat food

The vast majority of workers in the seafood industry are migrants. Exploitation is rife

With dwindling stocks, boat owners take them far from shore

Crew are kept on board for months, even years

Catch is transferred to a larger boat, concealing exploitation

Tuna is taken worldwide to canneries where it is processed

Some of the seafood caught by slaves has ended up in pet food

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