Published February 18, 2016
President Obama plans to sign legislation this week that will ban the import of fish caught by forced laborers in Southeast Asia, The New York Times reports.
The bill is one effort in a series of recent actions made by the White House, federal agencies, international trade unions and foreign governments to curb lawlessness at sea and better protect offshore workers and the marine environment.
The problems of forced labor and environmental abuses are not new to the fishing industry. In 2012, Pulitzer Center Senior Producer Steve Sapienza and grantee Jason Motlagh traveled to Samut Sakhon province, the hub of the Thai shrimp industry, to report on inhumane practices for their project “Bad Cocktail: Labor Abuse in Thailand’s Shrimp Industry.” They investigated working conditions in unregistered shrimp peeling sheds and interviewed migrant-labor activists and workers, many of whom testified to the brutal working conditions.
Sapienza and Motlagh discovered that about a third of the 20,000 Burmese migrants in Samut Sakhon province are unregistered and subject to rights abuses. Thousands found themselves trapped in bonded labor, equivalent to slavery, after being sold by brokers to factory owners who forced them to endure long hours, low wages, physical abuse and intimidation. Many of the workers are children who do not meet Thai working age requirements.
In early February, two of the world’s largest trade unions filed a complaint with the United Nations’ labor agency about Thailand’s seafood industry. As a result, the Thai government said it was installing satellite tracking devices on more fishing ships and requiring more reporting as workers get on or off vessels.
In addition, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a plan to improve how seafood is tracked from catch to market, requiring new reporting information for American importers.
“At its core, it’s a systemic labor issue,” Sapienza said. “Oftentimes Americans buy food, use services that employ labor from abroad and we don’t even know that these people were put into that vulnerable position.”
Sapienza said he appreciates the global efforts made to control these human rights abuses, but thinks legislation will be difficult to enforce.
“It sends a strong message by making this statement, but I’d be curious to see if we actually have the wherewithal and the resources to back it up,” he said. “Given the large numbers of potentially vulnerable laborers who are in the fishing fleets and also employed in the fishing industry in Thailand, I think it’s a drop in the bucket.”
Over the years there has been strong collaboration between various organizations and activist groups to influence change within this issue. As such, there is currently much good information circulating about the problems in the seafood industry, Sapienza said.
However, the fight for human rights is just beginning; the seafood industry is only the tip of the iceberg. Labor abuses and human rights violations occur worldwide and in a variety of other industries such as the palm oil industry in Malaysia and gold mining industry in West Africa.
“I think most people would be concerned if they knew the products they were buying were tied to some human rights abuses, or some labor abuses, or some environmental destructions,” Sapienza said. “But it’s really difficult for your average person to suss that out based on looking at packaging.”
Seafood customers have started turning to their smartphones to make smart selections. To learn which products have less impact on the environment or are harvested by fair labor, visit Seafood Watch or Green America. You can also look for the Fair Trade Certified label on packages. Supermarkets like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Safeway carry a variety of fair trade products for customers to enjoy.