Labour abuses in Thailand's seafood supply chain have been widely reported © Paula Bronstein/ Getty Images
Labour abuses in Thailand's seafood supply chain have been widely reported © Paula Bronstein/ Getty Images

Buying practices 'can encourage forced labour'

11 December 2019

Buyers are failing to take meaningful action to improve conditions for workers in the Thai seafood industry, a report has found. 

The report, by non-profits Humanity United and The Freedom Fund, found while there had been areas of progress such as traceability, there are still “large gaps” when it comes to tackling forced labour and human trafficking in seafood supply chains. 

The report claimed many businesses are more focused on “check the box” exercises than prioritising meaningful improvement of conditions for workers.

“Brands and buyers need to acknowledge that their own business practices allow – and can actually encourage – forced labour to persist in supply chains,” said the report.

Seafood buyers have engaged with Thai producers to apply pressure to implement international labour standards such as end-to-end traceability and auditing. However, sourcing decisions are still underpinned by competitive price.

“Pushing social compliance initiatives down onto suppliers thus increasing production costs while continuing to make sourcing decisions based on the cheapest price is an unviable business model. This business model limits, and can even undermine, efforts to reform working conditions,” it said. 

The report also warned that businesses are pouring money into certifications that are not governed by binding and transparent agreements. “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,” it said. 

The report examined the challenges faced by the Seafood Task Force (STF), an alliance of retailers, suppliers, NGOs and processors which was set up in 2014 to drive change and address forced labour in the industry. 

“The STF has shifted from being an industry response to forced labour to focusing more on supply chain oversight. Limited transparency and accountability, the slow pace of reform, and minimal engagement with external stakeholders, particularly workers and Thai vessel owners, have led to external disillusionment with the STF,” the report said. 

However, the STF still has the potential to drive industry-wide change if it embraces “alternative forms of supply chain governance” and consults with workers on the future strategic direction of STF efforts.

There has been progress on good practice in the industry. In 2014, only 11% of companies had some degree of traceability in their supply chains. Five years later, 82% of companies claim to know where some portion of its products are sourced, the report found. 

Thailand is the fourth largest exporter of seafood globally. Over the years, labour abuse, particularly of migrant workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, and Lao PDR, has been widely documented within the Thai seafood industry.

Separately, the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Responsible Labor Initiative have produced a free toolkit on increasing the effectiveness of modern slavery reporting. The resource highlights the need for transparency and accountability to support global efforts towards eradicating modern slavery.

GRI chief executive Tim Mohin said: “There are growing expectations on companies to identify any incidence of modern slavery in their operations and value chains and report on the steps they take as a result. This toolkit will help businesses to increase their efforts to address these serious human rights concerns, safeguard the wellbeing of workers and manage financial, legal and reputational risks.”

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