Slaves in the food chain: when compliance with transparency laws is insufficient

A finely detailed report in Bloomberg Businessweek traces indentured labor, from fishing vessels in New Zealand waters to US dinner tables. In doing so, it exposes the weakness of supplier codes of conduct used by grocery chains and restaurants. The companies in question have policies that prohibit slavery in their supply chain and are in compliance with transparency laws. However, they don’t require their suppliers – the company who sells them the fish – to monitor the fishing vessels for labor conditions. It’s like the flashlight of transparency dims at the exact spot where light is most needed.  Now these quality retailers have a PR mess to clean up.

In his Bloomberg Businessweek article, Benjamin Skinner traces the case of 24 indentured fishermen on Korean-flagged ships in New Zealand waters. Indentured labor is a form of slavery. Although they are 6,500 miles away from American consumers, the seafood they catch is sold across the world, including to the United States. Skinner links the fish caught by the Korean company to CostCo and other US suppliers to restaurants and grocery stores, including Whole Foods Market and Safeway.

The food companies are required by the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act to declare on their websites what, if anything, they are doing to ensure there is no slave labor in their supply chains. The companies mentioned have supplier codes of conduct that prohibit the use of slavery in their supply chains and solid practices of auditing direct suppliers. These practices are outlined on their websites and they are thus in compliance with the law.

However, the monitoring stops short in the supply chain. Fishing vessels sell their catch to consolidators who then resell the catch either directly to large retailers or to other consolidators who import the catch to the US. The buyers – be it retailers who make direct purchases or wholesalers that service restaurants and grocery chains – are not requiring the consolidators to monitor the fishing fleets. Thus, the push for transparency and accountability stops at the exact spot where labor and human rights violations are frequently found: at the site of extraction, harvest or catch.

As this case shows, minimal compliance with labor transparency laws is insufficient for companies dealing with food harvested or caught by poorly regulated labor. Fishing and hand-harvested crops are particularly plagued by poor labor standards.  In these cases, companies need to ensure that they illuminate their supply chains to the very end.  It’s difficult but necessary.

Consumers don’t want their fish fingers to carry slave fingerprints.



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One Response to Slaves in the food chain: when compliance with transparency laws is insufficient

  1. Libba Letton says:

    Hi, Libba Letton from Whole Foods Market here. We are in the process of requiring all seafood sold at our seafood counters to come through the Trace Register electronic traceability system, which is designed to trace seafood back to the fishing vessel and location of capture.

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