Was Your Seafood Caught With Slave Labor? New Database Helps Retailers Combat Abuse

Feb 1, 2018
Originally published on February 2, 2018 12:00 am

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, known best for its red, yellow and green sustainable seafood-rating scheme, is unveiling its first Seafood Slavery Risk Tool on Thursday. It's a database designed to help corporate seafood buyers assess the risk of forced labor, human trafficking and hazardous child labor in the seafood they purchase.

The tool's release comes on the heels of a new report that confirms forced labor and human rights abuses remain embedded in Thailand's fishing industry, years after global media outlets first documented the practice.

The 134-page report by Human Rights Watch shows horrific conditions continue. That's despite promises from the Thai government to crack down on abuses suffered by mostly migrants from countries like Myanmar and Cambodia — and despite pressure from the U.S. and European countries that purchase much of Thailand's seafood exports. (Thailand is the fourth-largest seafood exporter in the world).

For U.S. retailers and seafood importers, ferreting slavery out of the supply chain has proved exceedingly difficult. Fishing occurs far from shore, often out of sight, while exploitation and abuse on vessels stem from very complex social and economic dynamics.

"Companies didn't know how to navigate solving the problem," says Sara McDonald, Seafood Watch project manager for the Slavery Risk Tool.

The new Seafood Watch database, which took two years to design, assigns slavery risk ratings to specific fisheries and was developed in collaboration with Liberty Asia and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. Like Seafood Watch's color-coded ratings, the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool aims to keep it simple — a set criteria determines whether a fishery will earn a critical, high, moderate or low risk rating.

A "critical risk" rating, for example, means credible evidence of forced labor or child labor has been found within the fishery itself. Albacore, skipjack and yellowfin tuna caught by the Taiwanese fleet gets a critical risk rating. A "low risk" fishery, like Patagonian toothfish in Chile (also known as Chilean seabass), is one with good regulatory protections and enforcement, with no evidence of abuses in related industries.

Until recently, environmental concerns dominated most of the conversation around sustainable seafood. Issues like overfishing, mangrove destruction, pollution and illegal fishing determined whether a seafood item was deemed one to enjoy or avoid.

But when reports began to surface in 2014 and 2015 that seafood harvested or processed by forced labor was making it into the supply chains of major U.S. retailers like Walmart, Kroger, Safeway and restaurants like Red Lobster, corporations were quick to make public commitments and include stronger language in their supplier guidelines in hopes of addressing the problem. Delivering on those promises, however, has proved harder. Traceability alone hasn't been enough. Until now, retailers have had few tools to make it easier to identify which fisheries are actually at higher risk for human rights abuses.

It's a lament heard by Seafood Watch and others.

"The companies knew their supply chains weren't transparent. They were obviously embarrassed and humiliated by being called out," says Duncan Jepson, founder of Liberty Asia, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on preventing human trafficking. He adds that the incentive for businesses to use the new Seafood Watch tool is obvious. "From our perspective, the question now is, do you want to be involved or exposed to people earning their profits from these types of environments?"

Maisie Ganzler is chief strategy and brand officer at Bon Appétit Management Company and oversees the food service company's supply chain and purchasing standards. She says it's difficult for any company to get assurances that the product it's buying was produced without slave labor. Distance, language and cultural barriers, murky supply chains where seafood changes hands multiple times — all make the problem harder. She says America's country-of-origin labeling system, which labels where a tuna is canned but not where it is caught, also muddies the waters.

"And then you have the high prevalence of fraud, and I don't mean species fraud," says Ganzler. "If you're willing to enslave another human being or throw a worker overboard, are you willing to also falsify the papers that come with the fish? Probably. These are the most hidden issues in the farthest reaches of the world. It's super hard."

McDonald of Seafood Watch says the data behind the new risk tool come from reliable government and media reports of known abuses; incidences of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; the number of days a fishing vessel is at sea; and more. The tool also considers other indicators, like whether there is evidence of forced labor, human trafficking and child labor in a country's other sectors — such as forestry, agriculture and aquaculture. That increases the likelihood that these abuses could be happening in fisheries as well, she says.

Unlike the aquarium's Seafood Watch app, the new Seafood Slavery Risk tool will not advise retailers to purchase one species over another. Instead, "we say: stay, engage and create change in the industry by working with suppliers to change their practices," says McDonald. "With Seafood Watch, we have a lot of advice on what to purchase and what not, but it's very different with human rights abuses. If you boycott or avoid or stop purchasing, it drives it underground. Every human rights expert we talked with says you can't boycott, you have to keep it out in the sunshine. That's the only way to make a difference."

But many retailers are already skittish about talking openly about slavery in the seafood industry, and it's unclear how they'll address these issues with their own customers. Kroger, Safeway, Whole Foods, Hy-Vee, Walmart and Red Lobster did not respond or declined our requests for an interview for this story.

"No retailer is going to go out and talk much about the fact that there are labor rights issues in the supply chain, but it's critical that retailers stay in the game and continue to be involved," says Dick Jones, CEO of Ocean Outcomes, an international NGO focused on improving fisheries and fish farms in Northeast Asia. He likens it to the routine testing that retailers do for E. coli in ground beef. "They don't tell their customers there's a risk. They just do it because it's the right thing to do," he says.

Other groups are also working on tools to help businesses avoid human rights abuses in their supply chains. The Slavery and Trafficking Risk Template is an open-source project by the Social Responsibility Alliance to help companies build socially responsible supply chains. Labor Safe Screen, developed by the Sustainability Incubator, is focused specifically on seafood products.

"The reality is that no company right now can be 100 percent sure there's no slavery in the supply chain," says Ganzler. "All companies need to band together to work on the issue, along with the government. It really is an issue that governments are going to have to take action on."

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a journalist based in San Diego who covers food policy and sustainability issues.

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


There's a new tool to help fix a problem on our dinner plates. That problem - seafood fished with slave labor. NPR has covered this issue for years. Back in 2012, we sent reporters to Thailand and Cambodia to investigate. And there, they met Vannak Prum, a Cambodian man forced into working for three years on a Thai fishing boat.


VANNAK PRUM: (Through interpreter) We work day and night. And sometimes we fished three days and nights without stopping. After work, we'd bathe. If we used more water than we were allowed, we would be beaten up. It happened not only on my boat but on every boat.

SHAPIRO: To bring us up to speed on the latest developments, reporter Clare Leschin-Hoar joins us now. Welcome.


SHAPIRO: That clip we just heard is about 6 years old. Is the problem as bad now as it was then?

LESCHIN-HOAR: Yeah, unfortunately it is. Human Rights Watch came out with a report last week talking about conditions in Thailand and how they have not improved despite media reports and government pressure on Thailand to fix the problem.

SHAPIRO: Why is it such a hard problem to fix when there's all this pressure and media reports about it?

LESCHIN-HOAR: Part of the reason is because slavery in the seafood supply chain happens far from sight. There are people who are on ships at sea that don't come back to dock. They don't have a way to call for help. And the people who are doing this - if they're willing to enslave someone and even kill them, they're not going to be clean on their paperwork. So it's a really difficult problem to fix.

SHAPIRO: This latest attempt to fix the problem comes from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is known for its Seafood Watch program which highlights which fish are overfished, endangered, good or bad for consumers to purchase. Tell us about this latest tool, the Seafood Slavery Risk Tool, it's called.

LESCHIN-HOAR: Well, up until now, when we talked about sustainable seafood, the focus has been on environmental issues - so things like overfishing, pollution, mangrove destruction. But as news reports emerged that there is a human component to the seafood supply chain, Monterey Bay Aquarium got a lot of requests from retailers to help them develop a tool because they did not know how to get this problem out of their supply chain.

SHAPIRO: And so the tool actually lets people type in, I want to buy - I don't know - Skipjack tuna from Thailand. What's the risk of slavery?

LESCHIN-HOAR: Right. It'll say a critical risk or a low risk. And it doesn't mean that it's in that specific fish they're getting, but it alerts the retailer that there's the potential that it's there, and it gives them the opportunity to work with their distributors and importers to ensure that the fish that they're getting is clean.

SHAPIRO: Except that if, as you say, the supply chain is so murky, how does anyone actually know whether something is tainted by slave labor or not?

LESCHIN-HOAR: Well, the aquarium spent a lot of time working with NGOs who study the issue. They track ships that are at sea and how long they're there.

SHAPIRO: Oh, how long they're a season indicator because if somebody's being treated humanely, they'll be allowed off the boat.


SHAPIRO: So if a boat's at sea for years, they're going to raise some suspicions.

LESCHIN-HOAR: Exactly. If a boat doesn't come in, that's a flag.

SHAPIRO: This is only as effective as the retailers who use it. Do you get the sense that grocery stores and restaurants are actually eager for a tool like this, or are consumers going to have to pressure them?

LESCHIN-HOAR: I don't think consumers will have to pressure them, though that doesn't hurt. I do think nobody wants slavery-produced seafood in their supply chain, but supermarkets and retail chains are very reluctant to talk about it openly. And NGOs - they don't want retailers to walk away from a supply chain because it just drives it underground. The more they stay engaged and work on the issue, the better chance it has of solving the problem.

SHAPIRO: Clare Leschin-Hoar joins us as part of a collaboration between NPR and the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Thanks so much.

LESCHIN-HOAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.