Australian supermarket shelves are stocked with almost $2 billion of slave-linked seafood, with tinned tuna among the worst.
Melbourne and Groningen University professors on Wednesday published research in The Conversation after finding just one tinned tuna brand of the many from Thailand – our biggest seafood importer – can be said not to involve slavery in its supply chain.
The industry is burdened with gruelling hours, underpayments, trafficking, forced labour, beatings, and unlawful detention.
Greenpeace ranked Australia’s biggest tuna brands from best to worst – on a range of factors like working conditions, transparency and sustainability – with Fish 4 Ever, John West, Safcol, Aldi, Sirena and Coles brand coming out on top.
IGA and Woolworths home-brand tuna had improvements to make, while Sole Mare and Greenseas were rated poorly.
Sole Mare contacted The New Daily categorically ruling out slavery in its supply chain and was committed to sustainably sourced fish. The company said it had taken up the “misrepresentation” with Greenpeace, which has been contacted for comment.
In December the advocates named five canneries out of 23 tuna brands stocked in Australia that were sustainable, transparent and equitable:
- Alliance Select Foods International, sourced from the Philippines
- PT International Alliance Foods, sourced from Indonesia
- PT Samudra Mandiri Sentosa, sourced from Indonesia
- PT Sinar Pure Foods International, sourced from Indonesia
- Tops Supermarket, from Thailand
Greenpeace said there were significant improvements to traceability, sustainability and slavery in 2018.
What goes on?
Three-quarters of migrant workers in Thailand fisheries were subjected to a debt before they even started work between 2011 and 2016, according to a study by the Issara Institute and the International Justice Mission.
About 40 per cent had been trafficked and 14 per cent were physically abused.
A parliamentary inquiry in 2017 estimated $1.798 billion of seafood imported to Australia in 2016 was produced with a high risk of forced labour, according to ABS and Salvation Army data.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report into slavery in January last year, and spoke to Myanmar man Saw Win (name changed) who migrated to Thailand in 2011 when he was 57.
He claimed he worked for three months without pay after being tricked and sold by a broker. Mr Win alleged another man on his vessel was thrown overboard while he was conscious and drowned after becoming sick.
HRW alleged there were numerous cases of workers overworked to death, and reported alleged murders onboard fishing vessels.
One of the Melbourne University researchers, Associate Professor Vikram Bhakoo, said there were “significant abuses” of Thai fishing workers, who are mostly migrants from poorer countries like Cambodia and Myanmar.
“In some cases they get fraudulently tricked onto boats,” Professor Bhakoo told The New Daily.
He said they were typically promised jobs with “unrealistic living conditions and wages”, and end up being unfairly treated with no legitimate contract.
Some workers on long-haul fishing boats live in “humiliating” conditions without proper sanitary or wages and can face beatings.
Language barriers can make it more difficult for workers to raise a problem, and sometimes they don’t have a passport or legal residency.
Slavery in the fishing industry is not unique to Thailand, with the Global Slavery Index (GSI) listing China, Japan, Russia, Spain, Korea and Taiwan as other high-risk fishing exporters.
The Seafood Slavery Risk website rates the fish and country by its human rights abuse risks.
Slavery laws in Australia
Under the newly passed Modern Slavery Act, companies with a turnover bigger than $100 million will need to detail where they source their products from and what they do to make sure there is no slavery in their supply chains.
The statements will be published on a register from June 2020, and while there are no penalties for non-compliance, advocates will be able to name and shame companies, or encourage boycotts.
Opposition justice spokeswoman Clare O’Neil confirmed Labor would add amendments to impose penalties for non-compliance and introduce an independent commissioner if elected.
Oxfam Australia’s Economic Policy Adviser Joy Kyriacou said the Modern Slavery Act was a significant step in the right direction.
“At the moment it’s pretty easy for Australian businesses to operate here and have their office here make their orders through their suppliers and not really pay a huge amount of attention to the kind of standards there are in their international supply chains in particular,” Ms Kyriacou told The New Daily.
Oxfam had argued for penalties and an independent commissioner.
Ms Kyriacou said companies need to know their suppliers and supply chain, be transparent, and be ready and willing to step in and remedy abuses when they are discovered.
*This article has been updated to include comment from Sole Mare