Slavery at sea prompts calls for new ethical seafood labelling

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Ongoing labour abuses at sea have prompted research into a possible ‘social sustainability’ scheme for seafood in Europe.

Currently few standards for 'socially sustainable' fish exist in the food industry.

However, following a string of reports in 2016 implicating the fishing industry in widespread human rights violations – notably forced labour and human trafficking – a new ethical category for seafood has caught on with consumers.

In 2014 the Guardian uncovered an epidemic of Burmese and Thai slavery in fisheries across South East Asia, which produces much of the seafood sold throughout Europe.

The EU then gave Thailand a 'yellow card' warning threatening to ban all imports of Thai fish if the government did not work to end the abuses. 

Last year, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) reported that their investigations with the Thai government continued to find the same corruption and abuse across the board.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) of the UN subsequently released a report calling on states to begin enforcing workers’ rights at sea, take partial state control of fishing companies, encourage transparency and organise international cooperation to enforce standards.

New labels

The Norwegian Seafood Research Fund (FHF) will conclude a review of its seafood labelling standards May of this year. Prijo Honkanen, research director, explained the reason for the project is to:

“Identify standards for social sustainability and to evaluate whether customers in the seafood market require documentation of social sustainability. They also wish to investigate whether and how the Norwegian seafood industry can utilise good working conditions as a competitive advantage, and if this can be documented in Norwegian fisheries”.

Honkanen said the research is being undertaken at the behest of the seafood industry.

If the ILO’s demand for standards, given the scale of human rights abuses associated with fishing, are to be met, then the industry will need to begin looking into how this can feasibly be done – regardless of current consumer demands.

The FHF research intends to evaluate current standards and methods used by supermarket chains in the UK, Germany and France which already employ their own criteria.

British supermarket Marks & Spencer became the first retailer to introduce the ‘Responsible Fishing Scheme’ – a voluntary scheme ensuring high standards of crew welfare for fishing vessels.

FHF say the findings of the research will provide industry players good information on how to establish ethical certifications – whether under a national standard or through different types of scheme.

Long voyage ahead

James Simpson, a spokesman for the Marine Stewerdship Council (MSC) which provides a blue label certification for environmentally sustainable fish, explained that ensuring social sustainability is extremely difficult.

“The research sounds like a very sensible idea, MSC is looking into options in terms of incorporating labour requirements into the blue label. Currently no companies convicted of labour violations can be granted the MSC blue logo.

You can’t always introduce the same requirements on land as in sea. Crimes on land are relatively easy to police, at sea it’s another matter. We are currently looking into adopting standards set by other schemes, but this is a very long process.

In the UK we do have responsible fishing scheme which the majority of companies are now signing up to.

Other complications are the way fisherman tend to be paid which is a catch by catch basis – which doesn’t always equal minimum wage but in many cases it is highly profitable.

We are looking at an extensive consultation with all our stakeholders, which started in 2016 and will go on for a long time, into how to solve these labour issues.”

Given that reports of abuses at sea show no sign of slowing down, labelling may well become a basic standard for seafood in Europe. Setting and enforcing the standard looks to be a major challenge.

The FHF research has been granted up to €65,000 in funding.

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