Major tuna brands needs to step up anti- slavery efforts, report says

According to a report published by the Businesses & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), an international corporate watchdog, only four of the world’s 35 largest tuna retail brands said they conducted due diligence with the specific aim of uncovering modern slavery in their Pacific supply chains.

Slavery, forced labour and other human rights violations are rife in the tuna industry, an industry worth estimated £17 billion.

Of the 35 brands surveyed by BHRRC, 20 percent claimed to have mapped out their supply chains in full, and only 8% said that they required their subcontractors to enforce their modern anti-slavery policies throughout their supply chains.

tuna fish

Tuna and the Pacific

The world’s largest tuna fisheries are working in the Pacific Ocean and nearly 60% of the total world-wide tuna catch comes from this region. In 2014, the tuna catch here amounted to £17.3 billion.

The BHRRC report is now raising questions about how serious the major tuna brands really are when it comes to combating human rights violations in their Pacific supply chains.

The reported abuse includes forced labour, physical abuse, fishermen thrown overboard and refusal to pay out wages as promised.

“Modern slavery is endemic in the fishing industry, where the tuna supply chain is remote, complex and opaque,” says BHRRC’s Pacific researcher Amy Sinclair. “Yet despite years of shocking abuses being exposed, tuna companies are taking little action to protect workers. This report finds that most tuna companies need to significantly step up their efforts to identify, address and prevent modern slavery in their supply networks and provide redress for workers in order to stamp out this abuse.”

Sinclair is now calling for increased collaboration between brands and external stakeholders – particularly workers and their unions – to ensure companies develop, implement and embed meaningful and effective responses to end modern slavery at sea.

Steve Trent of the Environmental Justice Foundation says the BHRRC’s findings are commensurate with what he himself has seen while investigation human rights abuses at sea.

“Although disappointing, these findings do not surprise me in the least. It has been abundantly clear for some time that more must be done, and must be done now. In particular, actions must include specific measures to substantially improve transparency across all tuna supply chains,” says Trent. “Logistically deliverable, low-cost measures such as the publication of vessel licence lists and the requirement of unique identification numbers for vessels … are well within the reach of any country and would help end the violence, human rights abuses and illegal and unsustainable fishing that damns the tuna trade.”

Details about the BHRRC investigation

  • For their survey, BHRRC contacted 35 canned tuna companies and supermarkets between November 2018 and January 2019.
  • Together, the 35 selected companies represent 80 of the largest canned tuna brands, including Kroger, Bumble Bee Foods, Aldi, and Thai Union Group.
  • Only 20 of the 35 companies responded to the survey. (You can find their responses here.)
  • In addition to survey answers, BHRRC also reviewed publicly available information that the companies had published on their own official websites.
  • Of the 20 companies that responded, two-thirds had corporate human rights policies. Yet, there was little to no action to implement those policies.
  • Just four of the companies (Thai Union Group, Kraft Heinz Australia, Target, and Rewe Group) reported having due diligence policies and procedures that address the risk of modern slavery in their supply chains.
  • Only one of the companies (Thai Union Group) responded by outlining their due diligence procedure in detail.
  • None of the surveyed companies disclosed having found even one example of modern slavery in their supply chains.
  • Less than half of the 20 companies that responded claimed to be using social audits to meet due diligence requirements.
  • Roughly one-third of the 20 companies that responded claimed to be conducting human rights training.
  • Only five of the 20 companies that responded claimed to be using digital traceability so that the contents of their canned tuna could be traced back to the original catch.

“That two-thirds of the companies [that responded] have human rights policies is good news, but without any action to address abuses, those policies are little more than window dressing,” says BHRRC Executive Director Phil Bloomer. “We’re talking about modern slavery in one of the most abusive sectors [in the world], where migrants are bought and sold at sea, transferred from one ship to another and never allowed to come back to land, and tossed overboard if they complain or are injured. There should be profound levels of concern [among companies]. Yet not one company said they had found a single person in modern slavery in their supply chain. This indicates that the sector really lacks the effort to understand the abuse in their supply chains.”

Reliance on third-party recruitment agencies

One of the things that compound the issue is the strong reliance on third-party recruitment agencies to staff fishing boats and other jobs in the Pacific tuna industry. In the survey, only one of twenty respondents claimed to have oversight of its own recruitment process.

Notably, recruitment agencies in the Pacific are known to charge substantial recruitment fees, essentially forcing the applicant to take out a loan to obtain the job. This can easily start a circle of debt slavery.