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Progress in process

Controversial report alleges seafood labor abuses, criticizes certification standards

Low labor costs at Asian seafood processing plants
    attract a wealth of business. - Photo courtesy of U.N. Food and Agriculture
By James Wright
August 01, 2008

Providing consumers the information they demand about their food choices requires that seafood buyers examine a complex catalog of sourcing criteria. Sustainability, food safety and the environmental impacts of fishing and farming activities top their checklists, along with the typical issues of price and availability. While these matters are more or less measurable, another element shaping purchasing policies - social justice - is far more difficult to ascertain, especially when a supplier is located on the opposite side of the world.

In Southeast Asia, where the lion's share of the U.S. shrimp supply is produced, the low cost of labor attracts a wealth of foreign business. Over the past decade, processing muscle in Asia has exacerbated the U.S. seafood trade deficit - more than 80 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is imported, highlighted by shrimp at more than 1 billion pounds annually. During this value-added revolution, conditions facing workforces at processing facilities were overshadowed by environmental concerns and the increasing demand for sustainable seafood.

But in late April, a controversial report alleged extensive cruelty of seafood processing workers in Bangladesh and Thailand, the latter being the United States' No. 1 shrimp supplier. The report claimed that the shrimp industry and its leading sustainability-certification program, the Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture Practices, weren't doing enough to enforce fair practices, and it questioned the credibility of its widely accepted labor standards.

Suddenly, America's most popular seafood had a sweatshop stigma attached to it.

"The Degradation of Work: The True Cost of Shrimp," released by the Solidarity Center, a Washington, D.C., worker rights group affiliated with the AFL-CIO, detailed widespread abuse of workers at 15 Thai and 10 Bangladeshi shrimp-processing plants via anonymous worker interviews. Shrimp has become the most popular seafood species in the United States (4.1 pounds consumed per capita in 2007) and its rise to prominence, the report concluded, came at a hefty price.

"The 'shrimp boom' is sustained through a staggering, largely hidden cost to workers, their families and the environment," the report stated. "Not for the first time, the drive to make a product for the world market quickly and cheaply leaves a trail of abuse, misery and damaged lives. The true cost of shrimp is not what is seen on a supermarket price tag or a restaurant menu."

The shocking allegations left the seafood industry defenseless: Because offending plants were not identified, the National Fisheries Institute of McLean, Va., argued U.S. importers and shrimp buyers couldn't properly respond to the claims and commence corrective action.

"NFI abhors any kind of worker abuse. We have a strong expectation that suppliers are free of any kind of abuse like that," says NFI President John Connelly. "You have to make sure your workers aren't being mistreated. Whether that's through a third party, or direct inspections, proper treatment is ante into the game.

"But if [the Solidarity Center] wants to highlight a problem, they should get engaged in solving it."

However, the report did name several U.S. retailers - including giants Costco and Wal-Mart - that procured shrimp from plants where alleged abuses took place. Cub Foods, Giant, Giant Eagle, Harris Teeter, IGA, Tops Markets and Trader Joe's were also named as buyers. In late 2005, Wal-Mart committed to sourcing up to 90 percent of its shrimp from operations certified as sustainable and engaging in responsible social practices within three to five years.

"We hold our shrimp suppliers to the highest safety and quality standards - including maintaining processing plants and packaging facilities that meet or exceed Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) standards set by the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA)," says Deisha Galberth, senior manager for Promote Communications, which represents Wal-Mart. "We continue to work with our suppliers to review the Solidarity Center's report and always strive to meet the highest standards in food safety."

But in the weeks following the report's release, NFI says the authors repeatedly rebuffed its requests for transparency and cooperation.

"Our primary concern is the security and well being of the workers involved in this study. We want to avoid a situation where facilities are shut down, workers are fired and worker rights advocates are endangered in an attempt to suppress rather than address the industry's problems," Joan Welsh, communications program officer for the Solidarity Center's Global Outreach Department, told 
 SeaFood Business shortly after the report was released.

In initial talks with NFI, Welsh expressed fears that importers would boycott Thai or Bangladeshi shrimp, says Connelly. The claim, he adds, "shows an incredible lack of understanding," considering the nations' importance to the U.S. seafood supply. Last year, Thailand exported $1.3 billion worth of shrimp to the United States, or roughly half of its total production.

A wake-up call

Certification standards for sustainable aquaculture set by the GAA of St. Louis, the Solidarity Center claimed, are not specific or stringent enough to deter Thai shrimp farms and processing plants from putting migrant workers from embattled neighbor Myanmar (formerly Burma) onto 18-hour shifts and engaging in human trafficking, which Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) dubbed "21st century slavery." (Maloney is co-founder and co-chair of the Human Trafficking Caucus and attended the Solidarity Center's press conference.)

GAA Executive Director Wally Stevens says none of the alleged abuses occurred at plants that meet its certification standards, which are called Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP).

"Long term, the marketplace will be more effective in screening out this type of behavior with voluntary programs like ours," says Stevens. "The marketplace we're familiar with has sent the message loud and clear: Abide by these standards.

"[The report] was more of a wake-up call for companies that are not [participating] in sustainability programs," he adds.

Nearly one-fifth of BAP standards concern social issues ranging from workers' access to safety equipment and healthy living quarters to fair monetary compensation. The Aquaculture Certification Council (ACC) of Kirkland, Wash., enforces BAP standards and conducts certification audits at shrimp hatcheries, farms and processing plants. According to ACC's Web site, 24 of 69 BAP-certified shrimp processing plants are in Thailand, several of which are located in Samutsakorn province in southern Thailand, where most of the Solidarity Center's interviews took place.

Bill More, ACC operations director, says the group's auditors are well versed in the United Nations' International Labor Organization regulations and SA8000, a global social accountability standard requiring decent working conditions. Additionally, site visits are regularly conducted on short-term notice, typically less than one day.

Despite all of the requirements in place for certification, More agrees the marketplace has helped to expedite change in how the Southeast Asian workforce is treated.

"The EU flat-out refused to buy from [Southeast Asian countries] unless they cleaned up their reputations," says More.

"But usually, it's not the plants themselves" where abuses occur, he adds. "It's in the outsourcing operations. A lot of product gets 'farmed out.' These operations help at a time of year, maybe one or two months, when there's a lot of product coming in. They're not as careful as processing plants may be."

Stevens acknowledges that some facilities could temporarily clean up only for inspectors' visits, but says it's very unlikely. "It's naive to not think [abuse is] not happening somewhere," he says. "Just not on our watch."

The reaction overseas

An official with the Thai embassy in the United States, when asked for his reaction to the report, stood by his nation's longstanding efforts to stamp out mistreatment of workers, many of whom are refugees from Myanmar driven away by natural disasters or having fled the country seeking political asylum. According to the Solidarity Center, about 3 million Burmese migrants live in Thailand and work in its low-wage sectors, including fishing and seafood processing. The Thai embassy official says that since 1996, more than 1 million illegal workers from Myanmar registered with federal authorities for greater access to welfare and healthcare. And, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of State human rights report, Thailand has signed anti-trafficking memorandums of understanding with Cambodia and Laos.

"The Royal Thai Government takes all reports of sub-standard labor practices very seriously and makes their correction our highest priority," says Minister Kessiri Siripakorn, Office of Commercial Affairs, Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C. "However, the Solidarity Center's report, and later reporting by CNN, inaccurately suggested that gross mistreatment of migrant workers was the norm in Thailand, rather than an anomaly."

"The True Cost of Shrimp" detailed a litany of abuses ranging from extremely low wages (some less than $30 a month) and confiscated identity documents to sexual, physical and psychological abuse of workers, including migrant workers and children under 15 years of age, the legal age limit in both Thailand and the United States.

Especially egregious were the claims of abuse at the Ranya Paew shrimp-processing facility in Samutsakorn, which was raided by Thai police and immigration officials in September 2006. Undocumented migrant workers were found to be working around the clock at a fortress-like facility surrounded by barbed wire, a scene the police described as "a little short of medieval." The Ranya Paew raid was the only instance of abuse that was identified by name and had already been reported on by major news outlets.

"The raid by Thai police, in conjunction with our regular inspections, demonstrates Thailand's efforts to maintain the highest levels of transparency in our enforcement of labor standards and the prosecution of those companies that do not fulfill their obligations in meeting those standards," adds Siripakorn.

Sirapakorn says there are approximately 700,000 workers in the Thai shrimp industry, including farmers, middlemen and workers in 1,415 processing factories. In early June, the Thai Frozen Food Association led a delegation from the U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement and the Fight Against Child Exploitation Foundation on a tour of 13 shrimp factories, representing a cross-section of TFFA membership, Siripakorn says.

"None were found to have any problems regarding working conditions or to have used child labor in their production processes," he says.

Also, Bangladeshi labor officials in July announced that U.S. trade representatives were "very much convinced" that the country had made significant progress in labor-standards compliance in the shrimp sector, which it claims is now free of child labor.

The push for change

With its presence in Asia, the ACC and GAA serve as the eyes and ears for shrimp importers that can't oversee their suppliers' operations, screening out those engaging in irresponsible practices. Eastern Fish Co. of Teaneck, N.J., imports more than 60 million pounds of shrimp annually, with nearly a third from Thailand; the company also sources shrimp from Bangladesh.

"We've been really pushing our plants to go to GAA for what it represents: food safety, justice and the environment. [It's a] package of assurances and principles," says company President Eric Bloom, who is also NFI chairman. Eastern Fish, which markets shrimp under the SAIL brand, was one of 13 importers named in the Solidarity Center report as importers of shrimp from plants where abuses occurred.

"GAA encompasses all those factors in its charter and makes us feel good about who we're buying from. It's not a formal requirement now; down the road it could be. We're working with our customers to see if we need to go further," says Bloom. "It's possible things are hidden, but we've had no cooperation from the Solidarity Center and we are left to question whether their allegations are sensationalism."

BAP supporters, including importers and retailers, say the standards are poised for wider acceptance as consumers seek transparency throughout the supply chain. While food safety garnered more headlines over the past year, the Solidarity Center report brought social justice to light.

To support responsible players, seafood buyers will rely on certification programs like the GAA's Best Aquaculture Practices, which has become the most prominent certification standard for farmed shrimp. Currently, one-quarter of global shrimp production, 40 percent of Thai shrimp exports and one-third of U.S.-consumed shrimp go through a BAP-certified facility.

"It's further evidence of the importance of rigorous scientific standards and broad marketplace endorsement so that the bad players can be left out. It's the most effective mechanism for cleaning up this activity," says Stevens of the GAA. "We're looking to do things the right way. A group like ours is an ally in the push for change."

Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

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