Overcoming the double-whammy of combating slavery in seafood


If a CEO wakes up to a 911 phone call over a newspaper headline linking the company name to fishing by slaves, what should they say?  Ideally: “We’re on it.  Let me show you what we have done to reduce risks of exploitation for the fishing crew and factory workers in our supply chains”.

If a seafood importer receives a 911 phone call because a consignment of seafood has been pulled by US Customs to investigate ties to slavery, what should they say?  Ideally, exactly the same thing.

For now though, before this option has materialized, speaking up is still fraught with risk of association to the issue.

US companies are suddenly exposed to any product ties to slavery.  In 2015 the US Department of State cited trafficking in fishing in 55 countries and nine of the countries appear on the Department of Labor’s (DOL) list of fish goods produced with exploitative labor, flagging them for scrutiny under the 2016 import ban.

The first step for showing compliance is figuring out the supply chain and prioritizing the risk.  BUT… in a market where even the national trade association is keeping quiet on the issue, a company that acts could cause itself brand damage.  Any reporting on it (even positive press) means Google could inadvertently link the word “slavery” to the company’s name.


Petitions against the new trade rule for goods from Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines and other countries appearing on the DOL list will trigger seafood inspections.

Yet amid a stream of media accounts and class action suits associating the US seafood industry to modern day slavery, and even an Executive Order obliging federal contractors to certify they’ll act to eliminate recruitment fees, ID confiscation and so on, US companies largely have not initiated due diligence measures.

Further, ‘acting’ is not simple for US retailers and importers who may purchase up to 100 species of fish from close to 200 fisheries worldwide.  Their seafood departments often lack the domain expertise, information and tools that would allow them to understand trafficking risks within their supply chains and to proactively work with them to reduce and mitigate the risk of buying illegal products that could lead to brand damage, lawsuits, broken relationships and supply chains and lost supplies.



There are things businesses can do to reduce their own risks.  These are not necessarily the same things as are needed to reduce risks of slavery for the human beings held captive and unpaid in seafood work.  Both need urgent progress.

Many sectors have gone through it and offer clear lessons.  Seafood is tricky due to the intricacies of trading across multiple platforms and watery geographies.  However, two things are constant:


1.) Companies who can show they are already doing something will fare better than if they were doing nothing. 

When a particular shipment is tied to a particular facility and an association is made, where companies are doing more ‘stuff’, that will be considered a mitigating circumstance, according to Shawn Macdonald from Verite.   Customs officials (Inspections and Customs Enforcement-ICE) will be looking at how to trace products from high risk origins.  They will make associations based on the evidence.  In US investigations, companies who link their risk profile to product tracing look better than if they didn’t.

What ‘stuff’ also reduce risks of slavery — in any meaningful way for real people??

2.) Ultimately, the only way the promises stick from certifications or codes of conduct is when all of the elements are pushed down through contracts.

Understanding there is no simple way to create an assurance of completely eliminating slavery from fishing and fish processing, seafood buyers now have the challenge of proving they don’t condone it passively in their purchasing.

Contact us for assistance.

NEW: Import Ban on Seafood made by Slaves — Can it Be Meaningfully Enforced?


Congress has banned the import of seafood made from forced and child labor.

Last week history was made in the USA with the signing of a bill closing a loophole on products tied to slaves. This raises the following key questions for the seafood sector:

What does the new law mean?  A food executive asked the question when the news broke.

The U.S. Tariff Act of 1930 gave Customs and Border Protection the authority to seize shipments where forced labor is suspected and block further imports.  Surprisingly, it has been used only 39 times in 85 years in large part because of an exemption that said goods made by children, prisoners or slaves can be allowed into the U.S. if consumer demand for some products cannot be met without them. This is the “consumptive demand” exception, which was eliminated in the new law.

Other goods that weren’t exempted are inspected by Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection agents.  What is required is traceability and agents say their efforts are only as good as they have cooperation to trace back with the host government.

Seafood is one of the goods that previously fell within the “consumptive demand” loophole. It’s reasonable to expect that inspections will continue and now expand to seafood.

Why now?  What about enforcement?  A team of federal experts is deciding how they will use the available data and information to help enforce the ban on seafood made from forced labor — now that the exemption from fish is being closed.  The Department of Labor “List of Goods Produced by Forced and Child Labor‘ is the test.

The authorities have already determined what’s high risk.

If you’ve looked at the Department of Labor’s new Sweat and Toil app (google and download it on your phone), and go to Goods, the list of countries currently associated with forced labor, child labor and forced child labor in seafood are:

Fish = Cambodia, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Peru, Philippines, Thailand, Uganda, Yemen;
Shrimp = Bangladesh, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand; and

Shellfish (farmed) = El Salvador & Nicaragua.

Currently, the ratings are for the country where the good was procured. For example, if there is an incident of fishing boat slavery by a Korean fleet in New Zealand waters, it will be counted as a good made by forced labor in New Zealand.

How are data used to determine if a good is tied to slave labor?  Definitions for forced and child labor are set by an international committee of experts convened by the International Labour Organization every 5 years to standardize forced labor measurement worldwide (International Conference of Labor Statisticians).  The child labor definition was resolved in 2013 and recent efforts are into how to measure forced labor in a more standard manner (UNODC and ILO started work on this in 2014).

The main question is the threshold for putting a country on the list. When there is sufficient evidence to believe that the incidents are not isolated, that meets the threshold and a country is included.

This is based on the amount of evidence and information they receive but they require direct, public evidence in order to list a country. It’s a high bar, meaning the evidence has to be very strong and consistent to get a country onto the list. That said, given the media and other attention to these issues in fisheries worldwide, it’s reasonable to anticipate that new countries and products may soon join the list.

What can the seafood industry and their associations or NGO partners do?  Download the Sweat and Toil app and start looking into the risks of slave labor in seafood from countries on the list, as these products are now flagged for possible inspection.  For a wide heads up with total coverage worldwide, please check out the new Social Responsibility Tool for Fisheries sponsored by Seafish, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Sustainable Fisheries Partnership.  It ties directly into what the authorities at the US Department of Labor, US Department of State, and International Labour Organization have determined to be high risk origins for slavery in seafood production.

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