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NGOs React to Reports Revealing Modern-Day Slavery in Palm Oil, Seafood Industries

Living quarters on the fishing boats are typically cramped, and the men sleep short periods between hours of work. | Image credit: Adam Dean for the New York Times

Today, the US Department of State released its 2015 Global Trafficking in Persons Report, which places countries onto one of three tiers based on the extent of their efforts to comply with “minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” This year’s report maintained Thailand’s Tier 3 designation, its lowest ranking.

Greenpeace, which earlier this month released the ninth edition of its Carting Away the Oceans (CATO) report ranking 25 leading supermarkets on the sustainability of their seafood procurement, had this to say:

“Thailand continues to fail thousands of enslaved individuals and consumers around the world with its lagging efforts to address human trafficking,” said Greenpeace Oceans Campaigns Director John Hocevar. “The country’s seafood industry is particularly egregious on human rights issues, with new investigations released almost monthly detailing deplorable conditions on Thai fishing vessels. We support maintaining Thailand at a Tier 3 designation until the country takes serious steps to combat human trafficking.”

Additionally, hours before the release of the trafficking report, a New York Times investigation revealed that Thailand’s Thai Union, the world’s largest producer of canned tuna, has once again had its supply chain connected to slavery at sea. The story followed fishermen, many from Cambodia, who were held captive and forced to work on a Thai fishing boat, which supplies Songkhla Canning Public Co., a pet food exporter owned by Thai Union.

Thai Union is the largest canned tuna producer in the world, owning both Chicken of the Sea and soon Bumble Bee in the United States, along with supplying retailers such as Walmart and Costco.

“It’s not a coincidence that the world’s largest producer of canned tuna continues to be singled out for its poor track record on human rights,” Hocevar said. “Whether it’s the pet food we feed our dogs and cats or the tuna we feed our kids, the cans on our pantry shelves could very well be filled by people who are forced to work, regularly beaten or even murdered at sea. At this time, American consumers should not feel good about going near any product connected to Thai Union, including Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea.”

In 2014, Thailand was downgraded to a Tier 3 ranking for its failure to address forced labor, particularly within the seafood industry. Today’s trafficking report and New York Times investigation come on the heels of a “yellow card” from the European Union earlier this year for the country’s failure to adequately monitor its fishing industry.

Of particular concern is the Thai fishing industry’s widespread use of transhipment at sea. Instead of fishing boats returning to port with their catch, they hand it over to shadowy vessels and continue fishing - often for many months at a time. This puts fishermen, particularly undocumented migrants, in dangerous positions, as they have no opportunity to escape. It also contributes to overfishing, as transhipment artificially drives down the cost of fishing and increases the pressure on fish populations.

“Thailand’s government must act with a sense of urgency, but it is equally important for seafood industry giants to lead the way,” Hocevar said. “Thai Union's recklessness on the water is devastating for human beings and the ocean alike.”


Meanwhile, on Sunday The Wall Street Journal published “Palm-Oil Migrant Workers Tell of Abuses on Malaysian Plantations,” an investigation detailing worker abuses akin to modern-day slavery on Malaysian palm oil plantations controlled by Felda Global Ventures, which supplies major U.S. companies including Cargill and Procter & Gamble. Felda’s palm oil can also find its way into personal care and snack food products from Nestlé, The Hershey Company, Kellogg Company and others in grocery stores in the U.S. and across the globe.

Workers quoted in the article describe the terrible conditions. “They buy and sell us like cattle,” said one Bangladeshi worker. “There is no escape,” another said, “They bring policemen and threaten to send us to jail.”

Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has detailed the progress of major U.S. companies in addressing the use of Conflict Palm Oil in its online report card on what they have termed The Snack Food 20.

“The conditions faced by workers on Felda Global Ventures’ plantations and documented by The Wall Street Journal are deplorable and a clear case of modern-day slavery in the palm oil industry,” said RAN Senior Campaigner Robin Averbeck. “Unfortunately, this story is only the tip of the iceberg in exposing the systemic abuses faced by migrant workers in the Malaysian palm oil industry.

"Felda’s Conflict Palm Oil is being trafficked into the U.S. by companies such as Cargill and Procter & Gamble, and ends up in American supermarkets and homes in the form of Old Spice Deodorant, Pop-Tarts, and myriad other snack foods and personal care products,” Averbeck continued. “This is a critical test for Cargill and Procter & Gamble, as both companies have recently adopted responsible palm oil policies prohibiting the abuse of human and labor rights in their palm oil supply chains. Cargill and Procter & Gamble must act immediately to ensure that Felda remedy these serious workers rights violations in a transparent manner, or publicly sever all financial ties with Felda."

“Nestlé, The Hershey Company, Kellogg Company, and other members of the Snack Food 20 are at high risk of sourcing Conflict Palm Oil from Felda. They must press Cargill, and all suppliers, to remedy these violations in a transparent manner and cut ties with any suppliers not willing to take strong action to address labor violations."

The U.S. Department of Labor has highlighted, since 2010, the widespread use of forced labor in the Malaysian palm oil industry in its List of Goods Produced with Child Labor or Forced Labor, and last year the U.S. State Department downgraded Malaysia to Tier 3 in its annual Trafficking in Persons report. Averbeck said Sunday that RAN was concerned that pressure to include Malaysia in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal could result in Malaysia being upgraded to Tier 2 despite the egregious human rights and human trafficking allegations outlined in The Wall Street Journal. Sure enough, today the Obama administration removed Malaysia from the list of worst offenders for human trafficking and forced labor.


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