In 2014, The Guardian began investigating the clear link between illegal fishing and labor trafficking, notably within the Thai seafood industry. The same year, Thailand was automatically downgraded to the lowest tier in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report for continuously “failing to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.” In 2015, Congress took on the exploitation of workers around the globe by banning goods made or produced with forced labor from the United States as part of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act.
These steps indicate increasing international attention of the countless migrants enslaved aboard illegal fishing boats.
Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing, a term developed during the 1990’s, is recognized by the United Nations to mean fishing that violates conservation and economic measures, negatively impacting fisheries, ecosystems, safety, and international agreements. When practiced, IUU fishing results in some fisheries ignoring industry standards, creating an unlevel playing field that discourages licensed fishing. Moreover, the illicit nature of IUU fishing enables widespread use of forced labor. In many countries, policies to prevent forced labor are commonplace industry standards, but unauthorized IUU networks do not adhere to these standards.
The Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration directly addresses the relationship between illegal fishing practices and labor abuse. Launched by the United Nations Ocean Conference in early June 2017, this declaration was created by industry stakeholders, governments, the U.N. General Assembly, and civil society in an effort to get retailers and fishing companies to pledge their commitment to a more sustainable tuna fishing industry.
The declaration requires four major commitments from its signatories: commitments to tuna traceability, to a socially responsible tuna supply chain, to environmentally responsible tuna sources, and to government partnerships. These premises address the need for a regulated fishing industry to help eliminate forced labor practices and other human rights violations within the industry.
The commitment to a socially responsible tuna supply chain and the commitment to government partnerships specifically target labor abuse in the industry. The socially responsible supply chain premise broadly requires all signatories to “at least meet minimum social standards” as specified by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The pledge to government partnerships calls for government-led systems to eliminate illegal seafood industry practices, including any form of slavery within supply chains.
The U.S. government possesses tools to enforce these measures and prevent human rights abuses. In 2016, Section 307 of the Tariff Act was amended to ban the import of goods produced by forced labor into the United States. It is the responsibility of Customs and Border Protection to investigate products that were potentially produced with forced labor. To eliminate human rights abuses in the global tuna fishing industry, this ban should be robustly enforced through routine stopping and investigation of shipments that may have been produced by forced labor.
In his January 2017 confirmation hearing, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross noted the risks of forced labor in the fishing industry, and commented on the importance of the Tariff Act. Access to the U.S. market, Ross said, should be restricted to “those countries who play by the rules and give everybody a fair chance to compete.”
By incorporating explicit anti-trafficking measures into an environmental and regulatory agreement, industry leaders have recognized the intersection between sustainable fishing and forced labor prevention. The Tuna 2020 Traceability Declaration is a crucial step toward preventing labor trafficking in the fishing industry and holding companies directly accountable for their labor practices. The U.S. fishing industry should place a premium on meeting the standards outlined in the Declaration as well as the Tariff Act to ensure that Americans are not creating or supporting a market for slavery.
By Rachel Risoleo
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