Tuna slaves: Trapped at sea


From sea to shelf: what’s really going on in canned tuna supply chains? Photo: Madeleine Quy

Workers in the Pacific’s canned tuna industry are at increased risk of exploitation as tuna companies and retailers fail to address modern slavery in their supply chains.

The term “modern slavery” describes situations of exploitation that a person cannot escape because of violence, threats, coercion or the abuse of power.

According to human rights’ advocates, these types of maltreatment are rife aboard fishing vessels in the Pacific, where largely opaque supply chains are concealing abuse such as human trafficking, withheld wages, physical and sexual assault, sleep deprivation and, in some cases, murder.

Headquartered in London, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre released the All at Sea report in March this year, just two years after its initial damning investigation into the sector in 2019.

The report details a survey of 35 tuna companies and supermarkets, revealing while some small progress is being made, many of the industry’s major players are turning a blind eye to worker exploitation.

Significantly, only six of the 35 companies originally surveyed have revised their human rights due diligence processes over the past two years. Similarly, just six have actively mapped their supply chains.

Based in Sydney, Amy Sinclair is the BHRRC representative for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.

She said the results reflected a failing approach to human rights.

“Whilst it was disappointing that the level of progress that we identified in our follow up research has been as glacial as it has over the last two years, it’s not surprising to me,” Ms Sinclair said.

“I think it goes to show that a voluntary approach for companies to human rights is just not working.”

In an effort to combat the broader issue, the Australian Government adopted the Modern Slavery Act in 2018.

It requires companies with an annual consolidated revenue of more than $100 million to report on modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains, including voluntary steps taken in response.

“Those laws don’t actually contain financial penalties,” Ms Sinclair said.

“In the absence of financial penalties, it is quite difficult to shift the dial as much as we really need to see it shifted in terms of company behaviour.”

Elise Gordon is a senior research analyst at Walk Free — a Perth–based international human rights group dedicated to eradicating modern slavery globally.

She said in terms of traceability, Pacific seafood supply chains were particularly complex.

“In some cases, the country where the fish is caught is different to where it is stocked, where it’s processed, where it’s canned and where it’s sold, so the more stages there are, the harder it is to monitor how workers are treated,” Ms Gordon said.

In the wake of the global pandemic, she said workers in fishing supply chains were more vulnerable than ever.

“COVID is really increasing the risks of forced labour and the severity of forced labour in some situations.

“[Workers] are at sea for even longer periods because often they’re not able to leave the ship once they dock or, currently, they’re not allowed to dock at all because of the risks of COVID.

“It means there’s more opportunity for them to be exploited and fewer opportunities to escape.”

Ms Gordon agreed tougher legislation was needed.

“At the moment, companies can basically report and say they’re doing absolutely nothing and there are no repercussions,” she explained.

“We need accountability and I think the next step for governments is to attach penalties for the failure of companies to take action in their supply chains.

“Going further, we could also implement incentives for companies that do take meaningful steps.”

While progress is slow, more than four in every five companies surveyed have now made public commitments on human rights, up 20 per cent since 2019.

May 2 is World Tuna Day. Read the All at Sea report at www.business-humanrights.org