Pacific tuna workers at increased risk of human rights abuses
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Yellowfin Tuna
John van der Luit-Drummond is editor-in-chief of International Employment Lawyer

Forced labour, human trafficking, and unsanitary working conditions onboard Pacific fishing vessels are widespread, a new report into the canned tuna industry has found.

A multibillion-dollar industry, tuna is one of the world’s most lucrative fish with many of the world’s fishing grounds located in the Pacific Ocean, where allegations of abuse – including human trafficking, debt bondage, withheld wages, physical and sexual abuse, extreme sleep deprivation, medical neglect, and even murder – are reported to be rife.

Research suggests the covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated such abuses, with estimates indicating that nearly half a million sailors have been trapped at sea, often without a contract or pay, due to travel restrictions, border closures and other measures introduced by governments to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

A survey of 35 canned tuna brands and supermarkets found that, despite an increase in consumer demand for tuna during the pandemic, only six companies have revised their due diligence processes of supply chains in the last two years.

Although nearly half of the companies contacted by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) recognised the increased demand for tuna exacerbated modern slavery risks, only one-quarter had taken any action in response.

Three in five companies were found to conduct some form of human rights due diligence, but those specifically targeting modern slavery remain rare. Only one company – Kroger – identified and provided details of specific human rights abuses in its supply chain.

Conga Foods, Safcol, and Wild Planet Foods were the only companies to ban trans-shipment, a practice that prolongs vessels’ time at sea and is linked to illegal fishing, human trafficking, and labour rights abuses.

Carrefour and Lidl were the only companies to prohibit the sourcing of tuna from vessels using flags of convenience, the registering of a merchant ship under a foreign flag to take advantage of less restrictive regulations.

Most companies are not doing enough to listen to the voices of fishers in their supply chains, nor are they effectively engaging with workers and their representatives to uncover risks

Workers reported the use of third-party recruiters that routinely withhold salaries and retain personal documentation. While one-third of companies prohibit recruitment fees, only two have any degree of oversight over recruitment processes among suppliers.

Six companies reported having policies to protect migrant workers, but only Thai Union, the world’s largest producer of canned tuna, could provide examples of direct action.

In addition, only Coles, Tesco, and REWE Group have a detailed step-by-step remediation plan to address reported issues of modern slavery.

Half of the companies surveyed have policies requiring their suppliers to support the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, but only four companies reported engaging with trade unions, suggesting significant inaction in the industry.

Other concerns raised in the report include threats against workers to keep quiet during vessel audits and limited engagement with NGOs and other external stakeholders on human rights concerns.

The BHRRC called on governments to mandate comprehensive human rights due diligence by companies throughout their operations and supply chains.

“Too many Pacific tuna fishermen that put food on our tables face abuse and confinement every day. The brands who put the cans on their shelves are failing to provide adequate duty of care to these workers who furnish their products,” said Phil Bloomer, executive director of BHRRC.

Bloomer added that investors should also note that companies operating in the tuna industry not only run major reputation risk, but also “imminent legal risk as new laws in 2021 will leave their negligence exposed to legal challenge”.

“Part of the problem is that most companies are not doing enough to listen to the voices of fishers in their supply chains, nor are they effectively engaging with workers and their representatives to uncover risks,” said Amy Sinclair, BHRRC’s regional representative for Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific.

“The findings from this report must act as a wake-up call. The leading cluster of companies identified by our research demonstrate what is already possible and profitable. Companies urgently need to implement comprehensive human rights due diligence, with a specific focus on eliminating modern slavery risks throughout their supply chains.”