FOUL CATCH

Slavery in food giant’s supply chain

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A worker moves baskets of fish at the Talay Thai fish and seafood wholesale market in Mahachai, Samut Sakhon Province, Thailand. The European Union threatened to ban imports of seafood from Thailand because of concerns about unlawful fishing, a step that would hit trade of more than 600 million euros ($641 million) a year.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Nestlé’s admission of violations at its Thai suppliers could be a harbinger of change to the industry, affecting labor conditions and fish prices globally.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Switzerland-headquartered Nestlé is the world’s largest food company and competes with Unilever, Danone and Mondelez International.
    • Nestlé sent a team from the human rights organization Verité to uncover details of how its Thai fish supply chain works.
    • The European Union threatened Thailand’s fisheries sector in April with an import ban if illegal fishing and slave labor wasn’t eliminated.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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Nestlé probably expected unpleasant facts when it commissioned a human rights study of its seafood supply chain in Thailand. But the Swiss food and beverage giant must have been shocked by what inspectors say they found — including grim evidence of “forced labor, human trafficking, and child labor.”

“Sometimes the net is too heavy and workers get pulled into the water and just disappear,” the study quoted one fishing vessel worker as saying. “When someone dies, he gets thrown into the water.”

Managers also told inspectors that they only paid workers after a year onboard the boats.

“Sometimes the net is too heavy and workers get pulled into the water and just disappear. When someone dies, he gets thrown into the water.”

Thai fishing vessel worker

Nestlé had sent a team from the human rights organization Verité — which targets serious problems like child labor, slavery, dangerous working conditions and unpaid work — to ports in Thailand, the world’s third-largest exporter of seafood.

The Swiss multinational wanted to learn more about fishmeal suppliers for its Thai shrimp operations. What the study found is hard to digest. “The severe labor and human rights violations are an urgent challenge,” inspectors concluded.

Nestlé’s effort for transparency was not entirely voluntary. News reports and human rights organizations had earlier criticized the company and claimed people were working under inhumane conditions in its Thai supply chain.

Now Nestlé is vowing to take a leading role in the industry.

“As we’ve said consistently, forced labor and human rights abuses have no place in our supply chain,” said Magdi Batato, Nestlé’s executive vice-president in charge of operations. “We look forward to making significant progress in the months ahead.”

But before progress can be made, the company has to gain an overview.

“We are working with partners to gain a complete picture of the supply chain and to identify where abuse is taking place,” the company announced.

In the future, only registered boats can be part of its supply chain. Moreover, the company wants to educate suppliers and boat captains.

 

Fish export profits per county-01

 

But combing through uncontrolled growth in the industry will be difficult. About 300,000 people work in Thailand’s huge fish industry. And the human rights group Verité charges that exploitation of workers has been systematic in Thailand for years, including at suppliers for other big Western companies that have the same problems as Nestlé.

Most workers on the boats are illegal. Human traffickers annually bring tens of thousands of people from Myanmar and Cambodia to Thailand. Then they’re forced to work off their transport fees on fishing trawlers and at fishmeal companies in the interior. Often workers’ passports are simply taken from them.

Nestlé is the first big company to talk so openly about the situation, but the problems aren’t new. For years the fishing industry in Thailand has been under criticism. The U.S. State Department counts the vacation paradise among the worst nations for human trafficking, especially in the fishing industry.

Recently pressure on the Thai fishing industry has been increasing. The European Union threatened Thailand’s fisheries sector in April with an import ban if illegal fishing and slave labor wasn’t eliminated. A decision to ban could be made later this year.

In October, the environmental organization Greenpeace also launched a campaign in which it pilloried Thai Union, the world’s largest producer of canned tuna. It charges “shocking human rights violations” and abuse of workers.

Meantime, Thai Union’s tuna brand, John West, can be found in German supermarkets like Rewe, Kaufland or Edeka.

Many human rights organizations say the study made public by Nestlé should be an example for the whole industry.

“I see it as an extremely important admission,” said Steve Trent, head of the Environmental Justice Foundation. “I hope that more big companies will do the same.”

 

Frederic Spohr is Handelsblatt’s Southeast Asia correspondent. Mathias Peer is also a Handelsblatt correspondent, based in Bangkok. To contact the authors: f.spohr@vhb.de and peer@wpbangkok.com.

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