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Toward continuing the conversation beyond the 1-hour webinar, I’d like to contribute thoughts and outcomes from current industry-led initiatives. These are not full ‘answers’ to the questions, but learnings from efforts underway now in SE Asia and for SE Asian and Pacific crew on US vessels, providing some empirical examples to complement the theoretical dimensions of responsible recruitment in seafood.

1) How can we stimulate a responsible recruitment market for migrant workers in the seafood industry in Thailand and Southeast Asia?

To provide a safe workplace, employers need to define and clarify all working terms and conditions, including arrangements they may not see or be privy to, like between workers and recruitment agencies.  Much seafood work is subcontracted.  Within it, payment terms may be share-based or for piece work, looking quite different from wage employment.  Where the employer has a contract with the agent, and the agent with the worker, there may not be a contract between the worker and employer.  For responsible recruitment in seafood, that is a good place to start.  Employers can protect their employee from forced labor in a formal and actionable contract which makes the workplace accountable to recruitment term. 

Employers can also screen recruiting agents.  Some costs for work placement can be legitimate and some costs are not, from a perspective of combating forced labor, and the responsible employer makes sure the agent is not charging fees which could force or penalize the worker.  To do so, employers need tools like a hiring code with deal breakers for agents.  It will mean diving into the details because agents are diverse, even in one country, even at the higher end of professional employment, and even among registered agencies.  The hiring code should specify an oversight authority for each and every aspect of the work, which means regulators too, and it should specify a variety of grievance mechanisms which workers can realistically access in their own language, ideally well beyond a single hotline and including local NGO services offering safe labor supports (legal, language, advocacy).

2) What are appropriate benchmarks for progress toward responsible private sector recruitment, and how do we track or measure them?

Most of the seafood we eat has origins in developing countries and is made by people in workplaces far from sight. Currently, the weight of the forced labor issue is being placed on retail grocers and as a result, the company wanting to know about labor safety is likely to be a buyer of goods from high risk origins, rather than a direct employer.  They can’t start with contracts and hiring codes then but rather need ways of seeing into the distant supply chain.  They need ways of seeing which are credible, rigorous and verifiable and which are relevant to their business operations and relationships.

For companies seeking to prevent forced labor in the supply chains for their products, the OECD due diligence pathway from the electronics sector is a good place to start:

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To raise the stature of worker rights and entitlements with clear ways to protect, respect and remedy them in the workplace, the first thing seafood companies can do is screen their products for credible risks.  Products with high risk origins are made where subcontracting is dominant, where the workforce is comprised primarily of migrant people from impoverished origins, and where forced labor is known to occur.  Risk screening is not easy because seafood supply chains are complex and fragmented but it is a prerequisite to progress in the sector.  The number of companies mapping their products’ whole chain is a good benchmark of progress.

For a company with a strong relationship with a few suppliers, it may be possible to identify and close out risks directly.  For larger companies, getting the information and accountability needed will require a tiered or phased approach that shows a little more understanding of how difficult it’s going to be to show full visibility behind a product. The number of companies screening product origins with resources to spot risk like ILAB’s Sweat and Toil app, Know The Chain, Labor Safe Screen or other independent resources is a good benchmark of progress.

Companies are often afraid to publish risk findings for fear of being called slave owners.  It happens invariably for every investigation made public.  If an executive answers the phone when media calls, consider that their act of trying to participate also ties the company name to “slavery” in Google searches for evermore.  This must change for any durable progress to be made toward responsible private sector recruitment.  Companies do not yet hear or see messages that prove looking into the risks of forced labor in their supply chains is valuable, rather they see an annihilation of their peers in Thailand, UK and now Hawaii. 

How to change this? Most big food companies have NGO partners backing their seafood sustainability claims and risk evaluation should be a firm requirement; but it is still a future benchmark.  Alignment and agreement are needed on the definitions of forced labor and human trafficking, indicators and research methods.  Without it, there is risk everywhere and an onus to check all angles for bias and to look critically at conclusions based on the weight of evidence and in line with global definitions and findings by the authorities. Fishing crew possess the same universal rights as any other to work voluntarily, freely and without penalty or menace, and to be paid as agreed  and these rights are to be respected and protected by employers, regulators, and equally by the press, advocates and assessors/auditors.

3) What is the role of Government – As an Enforcer or Incentive-Provider – in responsible recruitment?

One of the tough aspects of combating slavery in seafood is jurisdiction.  Where crew are foreigners, the immigration department, customs, and Consuls are a key part of the equation.  The governing body responsible for the physical aspects of safe workplaces, for example the Coast Guard equivalent for vessels, is another.  Global companies buying materials from high risk regions cannot guarantee the minimum requirements in their buying policies are met, and take on the risk.  They need to know the labor laws in the countries they are operating and need checkpoints with oversight authorities to claim compliance.  They need information about the legal requirements in the country to check recruitment agency contracts and terms.  Contacts and programs in country-level departments of labor, customs, immigration, fisheries, and trade/export can be ideal partners for business.  This is also true for fishing companies which recruit crew from manning agencies overseas.  The Hawaii fleet is currently working with the U.S. Department of Labor’s ILAB team to develop a hiring code, for example, which applies to all work terms from recruitment to repatriation and manning agencies in home countries.

The Sustainability Incubator a Honolulu-based company offering ethical sourcing support to the food sector including for slavery risks in seafood supply chains.  We develop tools for social accountability which are bundled as the Labor Safe Screen, an information system for screening product supply chains for ties to slavery.  It’s designed for industry to use and has three levels: Coarse (country of origin risk), Fine (supply chain risk) and Remedy (site-based for fishing crew or plant workers).  A large number or products from high risk origins can be screened or a single product, where a deep dive is warranted.  Humanity United, Trace Register and a large group of stakeholders are active partners in formulating the tools since 2013, including Labour Rights Promotion Network in Thailand, the uncredited group behind the rescues in AP’s Thailand series.  Speaking as Katrina, my personal goal is to raise the stature of the seafood producer in the industry.  I am in the process of nominating Patima Tungpuchayakul of LPN for the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to humanity for the rescues, and I have brought Patima in person to meet seafood executives.  I have worked in the seafood sector over 20 years and play an awareness raising role on the vexing challenges of IUU fishing and slavery in seafood (see Forced and child labor is still an issue on our dinner plates in the October 21 edition of SeafoodSource.com). Let me know what you’re doing and I’ll let others know in the sector.

For more information about the Sustainability Incubator and its risk screening program the Labor Safe Screen, or to get involved, please contact Dr. Nakamura at the.sustainability.incubator@gmail.com.