By Juliette Aplin, The Futures Centre
Consumers in California have filed two separate class-action lawsuits against Mars and Nestlé for failing to acknowledge the use of forced labor in the supply chains. The consumers claim they would have not bought products from the Iams, Meow Mix and Fancy Feast ranges “had they known that the fish was allegedly harvested using forced labor.” Both Nestlé and Mars source seafood from Thai Union Frozen Foods PLC, one of the world’s largest seafood producers, operating in Thailand and Indonesia. Thai Union was recently named in a New York Times article exposing the use of trafficking and forced labor amongst fisheries operating in the South China Sea. It is estimated that together, Mars and Nestlé imported 28 million pounds of seafood from Thai Union Frozen Foods PLC into the US in 2014. The two lawsuits closely follow a similar claim made against Costco for knowingly sold prawns from a supply chain using forced labor. Further attempts to address the issue of forced labor within the seafood industry are also currently taking place in the U.S. through legislative action. Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut has proposed a bill to introduce greater transparency and accountability in corporate supply chains. If passed, this legislation would require companies to disclose anti-trafficking policies and ensure their supply chains are free from slavery and human trafficking.
In addition, a letter from US Congress’ House of Representatives has been sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), urging the agency to focus not only on illegal fishing, but on preventing “trafficking and slavery in the fishing industry.
Exposure of poor labor conditions across the seafood industry has increased over the past few years with investigations from Associated Press, the New York Times and The Guardian documenting cases trafficking and dangerous (sometimes even fatal) working conditions. On the one hand, these three class action lawsuits indicate a failing in voluntary, industry-led standards to monitor labor conditions in the supply chains supplying Amercia’s seafood. However, on the other hand, they represent a rising consumer consciousness calling for greater transparency and accountability from large corporates involved in the seafood industry. Should sustainable seafood certification schemes become more rigorous in including the social impact and human labor conditions involved in seafood supply chains? How far will initiatives such as Greenpeace’s annual retailer scorecard or the traceability tool being developed by the Marine Stewardship Council go in helping to stop the systemic exploitation? Will legislation and security forces be able to protect civilians from trafficking and slavery in future, particularly in the context of increased migration? Further from the consumer’s gaze is the issue of labor involved in supplying the fish fed to animals – from livestock to pets. According to the New York Times, “the United States is the biggest consumer of Thai fish, and pet food is among the fastest growing exports from Thailand. The average pet cat in the United States eats 30 pounds of fish per year, about double that of a typical American.”