Seafood for Thought

Given all that going on in the country today, it’s hardly surprising that a new law involving fish received little notice. But it should, and here’s why.

For years, a growing percentage of seafood imports to the United States — for both human consumption and animal feed — has come from Southeast Asia, Thailand in particular. The imported food captured American market share because it was cheaper and plentiful in comparison with U.S. seafood, which was more expensive and increasingly scarce.

OCEANS-master675Why was it cheaper?  Because the fish was caught using slave labor, most often young men kidnapped or tricked into working on fishing boats, but then chained to the vessel and denied all but the minimal basics of life. Those who could no longer do their jobs were often murdered, their bodies thrown overboard.

The world knew about this blatant crime against humanity for years, but little was done to stop the practice of slave labor. The product was, after all, cheap, which is what world commodity markets desire. Governments in Southeast Asia generally looked the other way, or undertook only meager enforcement efforts. The entire global food chain, involving food producers, unions that unloaded the sullied cargo, distributors and retailers, proceeded as if blinded by indifference. Not our problem was the mantra all along the food network.

Now things have changed, and it could just be that seafood harvested by slaves will soon disappear from retail refrigeration cases, cat food, and restaurant menus. Three causes for this salutary turn of events are responsible:

First, the U.S. government is taking strong action. The Obama Administration has approved legislation that bans the import of slave-caught seafood from Southeast Asia. A government agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a plan this month to improve how seafood is tracked from catch to market, imposing new reporting requirements on American importers.

Second, human rights and anti-forced labor activiists have learned how to harness their outrage by using sound business principles to combat the ugly practice of sea slavery. Using the principle of “traceability,” more and more companies are putting in place data systems that enable them to know — with precision — where products are sourced, by whom, when and how.

Third, the news media, traditional as well as social, finally decided to shine a light on worker abuses in global food production. For too many years (and I speak from direct experience), reporters and editors seemed to yawn from indifference when confronted with  eyewitness evidence of abuses. But advocacy organizations (including the National Underground Railroad Center, where I worked and helped create the nation’s first permanent exhibition on modern-day slavery) kept pushing for attention and action. The results are everywhere evident in local TV and newspaper exposes of teenage sex slaves, and growing awareness that human trafficking was more than an isolated issue in third world countries, but rather a global crime phenomenon.

The problems of human rights abuses as blatant and horrible as sea slavery will not be fully abolished anytime soon. The concerted actions of global trade partners and nations to weed out crimes against humanity are really just underway. But it is clear, and welcome, that Thai boys chained to fishing boats is a scourge that is finally on its last legs.


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