Tuna and Modern Slavery

Almost every brand of tuna on supermarket shelves shows why modern slavery laws are needed

photo: A processing plant near Bangkok visited by the authors. Almost all the workers are migrants. This factory works with local non-government organisations to ensure its workers are ethically recruited and supported. Kate Nicholls, CC BY

What is the chance the last tin of tuna you ate was made using slave labour? If it came from Thailand, the odds may be a lot higher than you imagine.

We have tracked the journey of tuna from the seas around Thailand to Australian supermarket shelves. This included interviewing more than 50 people, including people entrapped into forced labour. In doing so, we have been able to assess whether brands can say their supply chains are slave-free.

We believe just one brand of tinned tuna can confidently claim slavery is not involved in its supply.

Though we cannot name that brand, due to ethical guidelines to ensure our research remains independent of commercial considerations, our results further validate the need for the new Modern Slavery Act, passed by the Australian parliament late last year, to drive companies to address the problem of slavery in international supply chains.

Exploiting migrant workers

Thailand is the world’s top exporter of tuna, and one of the biggest exporters of all fish. Its marine fishing industry is particularly prone to modern slavery due to its size, lack of regulation, extent of illegal operations, and exploitation of migrant workers.

There are more than 50,000 fishing vessels and about 500,000 workers in the industry. Investigations by groups including Greenpeace and the International Labour Organisation suggest the majority of those working on boats meet the definition of modern slavery – any situation where a person is forced to work under threat; is owned or controlled by their employer; dehumanised or treated as a commodity; and is not free to leave.

Any person tricked or trafficked to work in locations far from home who then has their freedom of movement denied either physically or financially is a modern slave.

Statistics collected by Thailand Department of Fisheries on 42,512 fishing vessels in 2014 showed 82% of 172,430 fishermen employed on them were migrant workers. The majority of those also working in processing plants are also migrants. Mainly from Cambodia and Myanmar, they are often enticed by traffickers with promises of well-paid jobs, but find it is a different story once they arrive.

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