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Point of View: Social responsibility — An emerging hot-button issue?

Jeanne McKnight is a Seattle-based strategic communications consultant who has worked in the global seafood industry for more than 25 years. She has represented clients from the United States, Chile, Vietnam, Canada and New Zealand.
August 01, 2013

Is your company ready to answer tough questions on social responsibility? SeaFood Business Editor Fiona Robinson recently asked this question in the July issue after the release of the Environmental Justice Foundation report on human trafficking in Thailand’s seafood industry. Inspired by the column, I asked an industry colleague whether his employer, a seafood importer, was making any plans to address this particular issue if customers or the media contacted the company.

“We’re not,” he said. “We use [National Fisheries Institute] and [Global Aquaculture Alliance] for that.”

I first thought that was a pretty good answer and a fail-safe approach. NFI and GAA have been successfully fielding tough questions on behalf of the seafood industry for a pretty long time. NFI spokesman Gavin Gibbons has been relentless in his advocacy of the seafood community, challenging unfounded accusations about industry practices.

But should an individual company or corporate entity rely solely on trade association advocacy on this thorny issue of social responsibility? And what exactly is “social responsibility”?

As someone who has worked on issues related to salmon, shrimp and other species for nearly three decades, I suggest that this is one area where individual companies need to be prepared to stand on their own and not solely rely upon a trade association. What trade associations can do is to help their members navigate the choppy waters of country standards related to workers. What we in the United States might consider an unfair wage may very well be more money than a farm or processing worker has ever seen before. In the case of GAA, there is a social responsibility component to Best Aquaculture Practices certification that examines the prevailing laws of the land and whether a candidate is in compliance with local and national laws and regulations.

And that’s a good thing.

However, public opinion on this issue of social responsibility is shifting (fueled in part by the recent deaths of garment workers in unsafe buildings in Bangladesh). The pervasive nature of social media and buyer demands for transparency and traceability make the issue of social responsibility — the humane and fair treatment of workers — a big challenge for companies that buy, import, distribute and/or sell from certain countries with a less-than-stellar human rights record.

Consumer groups are starting to wake up to the issue of inhumane working conditions and human rights violations in the production of seafood. Companies that import, distribute and sell seafood need to take steps to protect their own reputations by ensuring that their suppliers do not engage in such shameful practices as utilizing underage workers, denying them payment of wages, requiring them to work excessive hours or charging them unreasonable fees for work permits, to name a few.

This isn’t the first allegation of labor abuse in global shrimp production. In 2008, The Solidarity Center released a sensationalist report titled “The Degradation of Work: The True Cost of Shrimp.” GAA’s Wally Stevens was invited to give the industry’s response to the report on a CNN affiliate station, where he was interviewed remotely. His main message was masterful and clear (although I am paraphrasing what he actually said):

The seafood industry may be global, he said, but we are made up in many cases of family-run companies with family values. We do not and will not tolerate any human rights abuses.

It seems to me that some variation of this message is one that global seafood companies should consider adopting. As horrific images from collapsed factories in Bangladesh hit the airwaves, companies with brands to protect will increasingly be pressured to reassure the buying public that their product was not manufactured in unsafe working conditions, or by children or slave labor.

Increasingly, big seafood buyers are stepping up their efforts to audit their suppliers, not just on environmental performance and food safety, but also on how these producers treat their workers. Companies that know their suppliers and know where they rank on the social responsibility scale should make that information available to their customers; it is not the role of the trade association to single out a particular member as being a shining example of responsible sourcing.

While a trade association will always exist to serve as a front line in communications and advocacy, responsible companies will see this emerging issue as an opportunity to draw a line in the sand. They should be able to show their customers the steps they are taking to ensure that the seafood they source is not just safe, high-quality and environmentally sustainable but also produced so that nobody can allege that it was produced by a child or an exploited worker. This is the world we are now living in — there is no turning back.

Jeanne McKnight is a Seattle-based strategic communications consultant who has worked in the global seafood industry for more than 25 years. She has represented clients from the United States, Chile, Vietnam, Canada and New Zealand.

  August 2013 - SeaFood Business

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