Report lays out path to end labor exploitation in seafood supply chains

Enforceable agreements between brands, workers can prevent abuses, says rights group


International Labor Rights Forum

Reports of forced labor and other egregious abuse of workers onboard fishing vessels are likely to continue unless governments and industry actors take a different approach to remedying them, according to a report released today by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF). Taking Stock: Labor exploitation, illegal fishing and brand responsibility in the seafood industry documents the lessons learned from ILRF’s nearly two-year pilot project that trialed a technology platform to systematically collect, analyze and report on working conditions at sea to reduce the risk of exploitation and abuse among migrant workers aboard Thai-flagged fishing vessels.

The report finds that while technological solutions provide powerful tools to address labor exploitation at sea, they are not in themselves sufficient to do so. Economic structures and poor enforcement of labor standards drive exploitative practices industry-wide, according to the report, and remedying them requires going beyond a vessel-by-vessel approach. The report calls for industry actors to negotiate binding agreements with unions and worker organizations that incentivize good practices and exclude businesses that refuse to comply with international standards.

“Workers must be central to this process,” said Judy Gearhart. “If we’ve learning anything in the last 40 years of experimenting with supply chain monitoring, it’s that voluntary industry initiatives paired with social auditing simply do not work. As the seafood industry tries to solve its forced labor problem, they should look to newer models of negotiated agreements between buyers, suppliers and worker organizations to ensure workers are able to speak out and know that their issues will be resolved.”

As seafood brands and retailers establish programs that attempt to improve the social sustainability of seafood, ILRF describes four essential elements that are required to make them effective:

  1. Genuine worker representation: Workers and their representative organizations must be involved in all aspects of social responsibility initiatives, which should include real-time worker-driven monitoring at sea.
  2. Comprehensive and transparent risk assessment and verification of workplace compliance: Effective human rights due diligence requires comprehensive and in-depth worker interviews on land, close scrutiny of employment-related documents and data on working conditions at sea, and transparent tracking of human rights performance in the public domain.  
  3. Legally-binding and enforceable agreements: Brands and retailers must make contractual commitments that require their suppliers to adhere to international human rights and labor standards, establish an effective operational-level grievance mechanism, and empower workers to hold businesses in the supply chain accountable for rights violations.
  4. Change brand purchasing practices: Buyers must determine not only what practices suppliers might have that leave workers vulnerable, but what practices they have that lead to precarious work conditions in supplier facilities.

“We hope this report will be a clarion call for well-meaning industry actors to negotiate with worker organizations to stop the race to the bottom for working conditions in the seafood sector,” said Andy Shen, ILRF senior legal and policy analyst and one of the report’s authors. “Binding agreements are the only way to fundamentally change the power imbalance that puts workers at risk in the first place and stops them from speaking out about abuses.”