Global fisheries and human rights: An opportunity for collective action

Fishermen drag a net to the shore. New United States laws aim to address the issue of human rights abuses in the global fishing industry, but it’s not easy to trace the industry’s complex supply chains in order to enforce them. Photo by: Henric Silversnö / CC BY

During the past several months the United States has enacted a string of new laws and regulations that aim to clamp down on illegal labor practices in the global fishing industry.

Together they support an already strong global push for transparency into one of the world’s foremost, but notoriously opaque, industries. Yet the consensus among labor rights advocates is that companies still need to take bolder and more collective actions in order to create greater change in the labor practices of their supply chains.

Efforts to address forced labor issues — just one of many challenges that shape the issue of “sustainable fisheries” — have largely coalesced around government regulations and independent supply chain evaluations by business and industry groups. But a third component — trusted and verifiable supply chain traceability systems at a global level — that can better bridge the two is still missing.

Dangerous waters

The global fishing industry has come under frequent scrutiny for its labor practices. The International Labor Organization identifies fishing as a “highly hazardous sector” because work crews are often subject to harsh physical conditions and deceptive recruitment practices.

“There is no reason why companies should not know [of those conditions],” said Dan Viederman, chief executive of Verite, a global NGO that focuses on fair labor practices. “There is enough information out there about the risks and types of problems that are likely present in an extended supply chain.”

On Feb. 24 President Barack Obama signed into law a measure that bans the import of goods that are suspected of being made with forced or slave labor. In doing so, he closed a long-standing loophole in U.S. trade policy that previously allowed import of those products if demand for them could not be met by domestic production. Earlier in the month Obama also signed an international accord that allows U.S. port officials to deny access to foreign vessels that are under suspicion of illegal fishing.

Regulatory shortcomings

The rules provide a useful legal tool to file trade complaints and grant U.S. Customs and Border Patrol authority to restrict market access for goods made using forced labor. But the government is still working out the precise protocol for how to determine the grounds for enforcement. And civil society observers are also wondering how the laws will be enforced.

“I don’t know how they would even do it for seafood,” said Abby McGill, a seafood supply chain expert with the International Labor Rights Forum, a global advocacy group. “They would have to show that this factory produced this shrimp which made its way to this boat.”

The new measures do not directly tackle the issue of seafood supply chain traceability. The ability to trace fishing products — and the movements of the crews working on them — throughout the supply chain from point of origin to final sale is a crucial link that advocates say would go a long way in stamping out illegal labor practices. But knowing that human rights risks exist does not make them easy to address, advocates say. And as McGill said, traceability is a process that continues to vex the industry because of its many complex layers.

“It’s often the case that one country is providing flag for a vessel that may offload to another vessel — a process known as transshipment — then land for processing in another port and secondary market before it reaches U.S. shores,” said Roberta Elias, deputy director of the oceans program at the World Wildlife Fund. “There are multiple places where there are holes in the type of oversight needed.”

However, practical technologies can still help enhance traceability.

One fundamental component is for all fishing vessels worldwide that meet a minimum size to be fitted with a “unique vessel identifier” that is equivalent to a license plate for an automobile, said Steve Trent, executive director of the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation. Those can then be tied to a global database of vehicle monitoring systems that can mine information and understand the movements of fishing vessels.

Other products such as digital licenses and certificates for fishing vessels that record data on catches, port landings, ship logs and crew manifests are also a possibility. That type of detailed data, experts suggest, can eventually evolve into broad traceability systems that can merge and unmerge specific information about the origins of a seafood product. Currently, global fisheries apply a mixed bag of those tools. The costs to implement them are “not negligible” Trent admitted, but if enacted under a common global framework they could have a significant impact on traceability.

The case for collective action

Still, no single seafood industry company acting alone has the capacity to monitor or trace the entirety of its supply chains. Collective action among a wide range of stakeholders is considered the most pragmatic and comprehensive route to traceability.

Initiatives such as the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force, which brings together leading retailers, manufacturers, governments and nongovernmental organizations to collectively address concerns of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices, have emerged. The Task Force, formed in July 2014, advocates for tracking and tracing processes, but systems coordinated on a global scale are still far off.

Collective action approaches could also help establish common codes for suppliers, share data and information of supplier practices and conducts, build grievance mechanisms for labor rights victims and collectively advocate to government officials.

However, having detailed traceability systems may ultimately be the most important factor in cutting down on human rights violations, though it is also one of the most challenging interventions to achieve. With precise tracking information on supply chain origins and practices private companies would be able to take the bold action of forbidding purchases from certain fishing vessels and effectively forcing suppliers to address human rights violations.

Drawing a clear line in the sand on their commercial practices would send a clear collective message, Trent said.

Governments have a large role to play as well, through laws and regulation. Thailand, for instance, has notoriously come under fire for being one of the worst perpetrators of illegal fishing labor practices. While the government officially has laws in place to address labor abuses and protect potential victims, poor coordination and management between relevant government agencies have severely limited its ability to enforce them.

“Any law is only as good as its enforcement,” Trent said.

U.S. laws have long made it illegal to import, purchase or shelve products that were caught in violation of the natural resource laws of the country of origin. Yet contraband goods still flood the market every day because of weak traceability standards.

One possible effort to look to as a model is the U.S. experience in regulating conflict minerals. In that case, U.S. regulations have required companies to publicly report their purchases of rare minerals, which spawned various traceability initiatives in Africa.

Until more robust collective action agendas take hold in the fishing industry, transparency efforts fall mainly to individual companies. Food giant Nestle took a major step last year when it commissioned an independent study of its fishing supply chain.

The damning report, conducted by Verite, found numerous human rights violations at Nestle’s suppliers. It revealed deceptive recruitment practices, unfair payment arrangements and harassment and intimidation of the laborers who fished and farmed supplies for Nestle products.

As a result of the study, the company has issued a detailed action plan that is aimed at addressing many of those shortcomings. To what degree Nestle follows through on its plan remains to be seen, but its actions are influential because of the public light that it shined on how labor violations can cut across many companies in the fishing industry.

“Nestle set the bar higher for their competitors and collaborators,” Viederman said.

So as advocates look to push companies on enhanced traceability alongside new government requirements, a basic starting point may be to promote greater accountability on labor issues. A common reason for inaction, he noted, is the distance that companies put between themselves and social issues.

“Sometimes, companies need to be told that they are directly connected,” Viederman said.

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About the author

  • Naki B. Mendoza

    Naki is a former reporter, he covered the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America, and Australia.

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