A five-point "Labour Safe Screen" in seafood supply chains / by Francisco Blaha

As may be obvious, I like reading some published papers about fisheries and in particular those from people I know and like. A couple of days ago my colleage and friend Katrina Nakamura as lead author of an interesting group that included other two people I know, Ganapathiraju Pramod and Dominic Chakra Thomson, published a very good paper in the hot topic of labour abuses in the seafood industry.

Crew of chinese longliner

Crew of chinese longliner

As an ex-fisherman, I have written that for me the real “race to the bottom” has been on the crewing side and the relation to forced labour. I don't think that a complicated 18-year-old kid like I was at the time could use fishing today to get through life and pay for its studies. Yet when I came to NZ I was surprised how much better life was on board, and how much more money I got paid (and on time!) we had here in comparison to Argentina and the Pacific Islands where I worked before coming here.

So where you stand and what you are used to makes big difference in this area, so where is the line that separates what is acceptable? And that is what I like the most of this paper, it has, in my opinion, a fresh an balanced approach that gets away from the “developed country saviour” stereotype that other initiatives in the area seem to have.

When I read :

We shifted the basis of screening from attempting to prove or to disprove forced labour conditions in supply chains toward establishing system fundamentals for human rights due diligence.

I was convinced that this is the way to follow, and this paper is one of those that we will see quoted many times! So read the original! I just quote some parts of the original and from this presentation of results here.

Is a complex topic with a lot of regional variabilities. There used to be a good correlation in between the flag of a vessel and the nationality of its crew, in many cases, there was unions or syndicates that, provided boarding rights and negotiated standards conditions, but that is mostly gone.

Today in international fishing particularly by DWFN or by nationals of those nations flagging in developing countries, is labour brokers that's supply a mix of a professional crew from seafaring nations as well as less-skilled and lower-cost crew from quite desperate nations many of them without seafaring experience. The vessels are physically isolated, with working hours determined by ocean conditions and the round-the-clock duties needed to keep a ship operating safely. Payment for work is often a share of the catch value, based on seniority.

The less-skilled crew, who may not speak their colleagues’ language or have any legal standing in the vessel’s flag state, are vulnerable to involuntary and unpaid work. This is particularly the case where the direct employer is a distant labour agent, rather than the vessel’s owner.

Nonetheless, vulnerable conditions alone do not dictate forced labour. Fishing wages provide dignified livelihoods and an escape from poverty for millions of fishers and crew operating in many remote fisheries. But there should be a framework to see when the line is crossed.

And that framework is what this paper proposes, in view that given the complex international nature of seafood trade, private companies have an important role to play alongside national regulations. 

Hence they developed a five-point Labour Safe Screen (and tested it for 118 products). Four of these components are designed to identify the risk of slavery: 

  • product screening for country-level origins and standing on forced labour in seafood
  • a template for mapping the supply chain
  • an algorithm for estimating risk in fishing operations
  • surveys for collecting proof of protective conditions in the workplace.
  • The fifth component is a set of principles for minimum protective conditions in the workplace. 
Field-tested principles for minimum conditions to protect workers from forced labor.

Field-tested principles for minimum conditions to protect workers from forced labor.

The framework combined the use of technology in existing platforms with the collection of industry data and authoritative human rights data. Eighteen food companies used three or more components of the framework and systematically documented their supply chains, engaged suppliers, and cross-checked results. The companies were able to identify areas where working conditions met minimum principles, were unknown, or were inadequate.

Not surprisingly, they found that a data gap separates the industry and human rights sphere. Slavery in seafood was described as a tenacious and prevalent problem in Southeast Asia and international fishing fleets, based on our 12 interviews with human trafficking experts at the beginning of the study period in 2013. By contrast, slavery in seafood was described as an isolated and aberrant problem in eight interviews with senior seafood executives in the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, and Thailand in 2013. The human trafficking experts had gathered significant evidence of forced labour in seafood. However, their organizations had only limited relationships with the seafood industry at that time, limiting their access to data and avenues to effect change. The seafood companies gathered evidence to comply with legal and customs requirements and had limited access to worker data, human rights findings, and avenues to effect change. The data available suggest that the working conditions that allow for forced labour are nuanced, and risk identification requires firsthand worker perspectives (. Any interpretation of forced labour conditions is influenced by language and trust, and any preconceived notions about what a victim of forced labour looks like and how a victim behaves can aggravate consequences for human beings. To collect worker data effectively, both the industry and human rights spheres needed new relationships and methods.

Summary of results
Overall, the 18 food companies in our study used three or more components of the five-point LSS framework and systematically documented their supply chains, engaged suppliers, and cross-checked results. They experienced successes and challenges in trying to collect and verify data in their supply chains, which we have illustrated with examples and details (based on public data and excluding proprietary data). Human rights due diligence was a new concept to the seafood sector in the study period. The methods that worked well were supply chain mapping (component 2) and using supplier and human rights data together (component 4). These were indispensable for seeing previously unknown and at-risk conditions in the supply chain, for example, where brokers are predominant. It was challenging to collect data on working conditions from suppliers with online surveys (component 4). Respondents wanted to comply with their buyers’ requests but were concerned about losing business. The surveys were revised in 2016/2017 in part to de-risk the experience for suppliers and in part to improve the surveys in ways human rights authorities recognize to be legitimate. In the digital program, we found that suppliers did not maintain the labour code of conduct, universal contract, and grievance mechanisms the survey asked for but were familiar with local labour laws and social certification programs. We added an open question to collect all labour diligence efforts and avoid duplication and prescription. In Hawaii, we learned that remediation takes time and community engagement. The chain of custody documents (component 5) were revised in multiple rounds of stakeholder input and field testing to make sense to industrial fishing and seafood employers and to include specific references to the normative framework, for example, the C188 Work in Fishing Convention.
Slavery in seafood supply chains is an incendiary topic, and our intermediate goal was to resolve the finest possible scale of drivers and impacts from trade data and the factual accounts of workers and employers, and their representatives. We observed the drivers of working conditions in 118 supply chains, as well as the large-scale drivers of weak enforcement of labour and fisheries regulations and weak tracking of seafood product origins by companies and customs agencies worldwide. Forced labour in seafood coexists with overfishing, illegal fishing, corruption, and sex trafficking to service fishing fleets—a widespread problem documented by the U.S. Department of State. 
We are contributing interdisciplinary methods that we hope future researchers will use in service of decent work and labour safety in seafood. We learned that seafood companies want their vendors to have systems to identify risks and make improvements and to disclose their efforts. Companies said they wanted each entity in the supply chain producing the good before it reaches them to be responsible for protective working conditions in their operations. They wanted an onramp for the sector, and some wanted a seat at the table for the overall direction of the effort in the sector to ensure that it meets best practice, and particularly that it meets the highest-order legal tests from customs officials. Human rights authorities did not want the work done by companies to be token. They expected companies to use knowledge and resources in the human rights sphere, to act on the findings from workers, and to make their efforts available for verification. The company executives and human rights experts who contributed to our study expected certification programs for seafood sustainability to incorporate human rights due diligence.

Their proposal found that by triangulating industry and human rights data (from proprietary and public data sources), our framework allowed traders to identify the “pinch” points in their supply lines. They could then pinpoint labour risks where corrective actions could be most efficiently focused.

This approach captures data for each workplace as a product moves through the supply chain, transcending national domains and trans-shipping issues. 

The results give traders the tools to identify areas where working conditions are either acceptable, unknown or inadequate. 

Although risk-based due diligence does not guarantee that a product is free from forced labour, it does allow screening of large numbers of products. It can also focus attention on the most urgent points for remedial steps. 

Ultimately, regulatory oversight is the main ingredient for low risk and makes it easier to focus on minimum protective work conditions. So in situations where the regulatory systems are strict and enforced (as in Australia), then minimum standards are likely to prevail and forced labour is likely to be a low risk.

Ideally, robust risk assessment should be part of a multi-pronged strategy for sustainable and socially responsible seafood. As part of this, we should always include ways to hear directly from workers and their organisations at the front line.