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P-Cubed: Elevating the Power of Partnerships

Public-private partnerships are referred to as P3s. At Concordia, we believe that collaboration is the key to solving the world’s greatest challenges. “P-Cubed: Elevating the Power of Partnerships” is a series by Concordia providing insight into our programs and lessons learned about partnership building.

by Teddie Levenfiche and Mae Espinosa

Maung Soe agreed to work on a fishing boat on one condition: that the ship stay in Thai waters. Instead, he was tricked, given false papers, and sent to Indonesia as a slave. His story is one of many heartbreaking accounts of modern slavery in the Thai fishing industry uncovered by the Associated Press after a year-long investigation. Seafood from Slaves, first published on March 25, 2015, unmasked the horrendous conditions in which the slaves work, exposing the global magnitude of the problem. Slave-caught seafood ends up in some of the United States’ largest grocery stores, such as Walmart and even Whole Foods, and in popular pet food brands, including Fancy Feast and Iams. Labor trafficking is not a distant issue; it is right around the corner and even in our homes.

As if it wasn’t troubling enough that Thailand is one of the world’s largest exporters of fish and fishery products, the issue is more complex when considering other factors. Limited transparency and traceability means supply chains are clouded as tainted seafood mixes with legally-caught seafood once it is brought to port. Identifying abuses is difficult, as ships spend years at a time isolated at sea. Fishers are largely migrants who lack a support system, are legally restricted from forming labor unions, and don’t speak the language well enough to report abuses. But even when abuses are identified, it’s unclear which country is responsible for enforcing laws. In many cases, corruption is rampant.

No single actor can or should be expected to address such a complex issue alone. While private sector suppliers have direct responsibility for the treatment of slaves, private sector buyers make the practice lucrative. Yet, neither is willing to accept responsibility and enact meaningful reforms or constraints on complicent practices. With profit margins a priority, buyers simply shift the blame down the supply chain and are not willing to commit resources to the issue. Suppliers, on their part, must balance the consequences of overfishing with high consumer demand: as fish populations decrease, trawlers must spend more time at sea — for some fishing vessels, years at a time — in order to catch profitable amounts of seafood. Thus, they recruit slaves who are forced to work 20 to 22-hour days with little or no pay. In addition, lax government regulations and frank denial mean there is little legal deterrence. The implementation of recent government reforms is questioned by many in the abolitionist space and many believe the latest reforms do not go far enough to protect vulnerable populations. Though non-profits are spearheading human rights in the fight against labor trafficking, they lack the power to enforce regulations themselves.

Thus, cross-sector collaboration is essential to address this issue.

Following a thought-provoking panel on human trafficking at the 2014 Concordia Summit, Concordia began to explore the issue of labor trafficking in greater depth. We observed that although labor trafficking is more prevalent than sex trafficking, it receives less media and political attention. Much more needed to be done to amplify the issue. With strong support from our member base, we launched our Campaign Against Labor Trafficking in July 2015. In collaboration with NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and Winrock International, Concordia is working to develop an industry-wide, systemic, and collaborative approach to address modern slavery. The goal of our Campaign is to establish a public-private partnership to help end this practice. With its partners, Concordia will work to develop a set of constraints for the private sector that are binding and meaningful, as well as connect international policy and attention to local actors engaged in finding solutions.

To contribute to this conversation, Concordia will cohost a working luncheon with the Nomi Network and IESE Business School to develop a repository of best practices to eliminate forced labor from corporate supply chains. Social impact in the instance of the Concordia Campaign to Address Labor Trafficking is of the highest order: it means a better life for fishers like Maung Soe. Cross-sector collaboration provides a framework for coordinated and meaningful progress in a challenging issue area.

Photo Credit: Solidarity Center, June 26, 2014