Canned tuna brands fail to tackle modern slavery in supply chains, says human rights group

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

A report calls for urgent reforms to protect workers at sea ©GettyImages / HeriMardinal
A report calls for urgent reforms to protect workers at sea ©GettyImages / HeriMardinal
Around 80% of tuna companies don’t know who caught their fish, putting workers in the industry at risk of exploitation, according to the UK-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

Food businesses are under increased pressure from both governments and consumers to reveal what actions they are taking to ensure their supply chains are free from slavery.

But of 35 tuna companies and supermarkets surveyed by Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), only 20% detailed their supply chains in the Pacific region, which provides almost 60% of the world’s tuna, according to the World Bank, in an industry worth US$22 billion.

BHRRC’s report claimed that severe human rights abuse was endemic in the Pacific, including forced labour, slavery, human trafficking and child labour, and reports of migrant workers bought and sold as slaves and tossed overboard if they complained or were injured.

The report said only seven companies: Aldi Nord, Aldi South Group, Bumble Bee Foods, Clover Leaf Seafoods, Coles, Organico Realfoods and Thai Union, disclosed their entire supply chains.

The other 80% (28) either did not indicate, or reported having mapped only in part. Tesco – the largest supermarket in the UK – which produces its own-brand tuna products, and Lidl (which owns the Nixe range of tinned fish), one of the largest food retailers in Germany, both failed to disclose information about their supply chains.

Only Thai Union, the world’s largest canned tuna company, could outline its due diligence procedure in detail.

The report, Out of Sight: Modern Slavery in Pacific Supply Chains of Canned Tuna​, revealed:

  • 80% of companies failed to disclose where in the Pacific their tuna comes from
  • Only 20% of companies said they have mapped their whole supply chains
  • Only 4/35 (11%) said they conduct due diligence specifically to uncover modern slavery in their supply chains
  • Only 3/35 (8%) companies said their modern slavery policies apply to all workers in their supply chains
  • Just 3/35 (8%) tuna companies - Thai Union, Simplot and Tri Marine – said they require subcontractors to enforce their modern slavery policies throughout their supply chains.
  • Only one company – Thai Union – mentioned engagement with a trade union (International Transport Workers Federation).

BHRRC surveyed 35 canned tuna companies and supermarkets representing 80 of the world’s largest retail canned tuna brands, between November 2018 and January 2019. Twenty of the 35 companies responded, while 15 failed to respond, including Tesco, Lidl Walmart and Costco.

‘Modern slavery is endemic in the fishing industry’

Amy Sinclair, the report's author and Pacific Researcher at BHRRC, said: “Modern slavery is endemic in the fishing industry, where the tuna supply chain is remote, complex and opaque. Yet despite years of shocking abuses being exposed, tuna companies are taking little action to protect workers. 

“This report finds that most tuna companies need to significantly step up their efforts to identify, address and prevent modern slavery in their supply networks and provide redress for workers in order to stamp out this abuse.”

She added: “We need to see far more collaboration between brands and external stakeholders, especially workers and their unions, to ensure companies develop, implement and embed meaningful and effective responses to end modern slavery at sea.”

'Workers can be trapped on fishing vessels for potentially years at a time'

Complex international supply chains allowed stories of “horrendous”​ human rights abuses to stay hidden, said the report. The process of trans-shipment -- when fish catches are collected at sea and transported to port by giant refrigerated cargo ships -- can result in workers being trapped on fishing vessels for potentially years at a time, claimed the report.

Migrant workers were especially vulnerable to spending extended periods at sea, where they were physically isolated, with few options for escape or reporting abuse, noted BHRRC. It also highlighted reports of identity documents being confiscated, trapping workers in forced labour; the supply of forged identity documents rendering men stateless; and captains leaving crew stranded on remote islands as punishment, or simply because they were no longer required for work.

‘Urgent reforms are needed’

The report called for urgent reforms to protect workers at sea. Some tuna companies (Thai Union, Bumble Bee Foods and Clover Leaf Seafoods) were improving their approach to human rights, with innovative measures to address modern slavery, such as digital traceability of fish, and measures designed specifically to protect migrant fishers from abuse, said BHRRC.

But without collective action, and clear communication of zero tolerance by buyers, unscrupulous operators in tuna fishing fleets would “continue to tolerate the scourge of slavery, bringing the whole industry into further disrepute”, ​claimed BHRRC.

It called on tuna companies to take action to implement rigorous human rights due diligence processes. It called on the tuna industry to follow companies in other sectors, such as clothing giant Adidas, which have implemented no-retribution complaint and whistle-blower mechanisms and urged firms to introduce comprehensive human rights training to address modern slavery in fishing.

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