Seafood supply chains criss-cross the globe, making the policing of business ethics notoriously difficult. A new UK-based initiative hopes to help turn the tide
Seafish, a non-departmental public body set up by the UK Fisheries Act 1981 to improve efficiency and standards in UK and global seafood, has created an ethics working group in response to growing concerns about unethical practices within the global seafood market. The working group’s membership-driven work will target unethical supply chains, labour issues and responsible sourcing of seafood including environmental impacts.
Seafish is funded by a levy on the first sale of seafood products in the UK, including imported seafood. It facilitates, chairs and provides the secretariat for the ethics working group (EWG). The EWG’s 40 members comprise companies that process seafood into retail products, federations representing the food and drink industry and NGOs concerned with seafood ethics.
Members include the British Retail Consortium, Young’s Seafood and Direct Seafoods, the biggest supplier of fresh fish to the catering trade in the UK. Major supermarkets Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and the Co-Operative are also founding members.
The group’s inaugural meeting took place in July. Its definitive work programme, initiatives report and statement of intent, plus a complete member list are to be confirmed.
Thai supply chain
UK retail buyers insist on consistency of size and supply, but are accused of inaction on allegations of human trafficking and slave labour in the Thai seafood industry. A Seafish briefing in August 2014 explains that the allegations, published by the Guardian in July, implicated one major producer, CP Foods, that supplied many UK retailers.
Paul Williams, chief executive of Seafish, tells Ethical Corporation that the EWG’s pressure to address Thailand’s supply chain challenges comes from within the market itself; to identify what social ethical issues exist, identify gaps between existing practice and good practice, and satisfy consumer demands that the industry lives up to its responsibilities. “The group discussed issues including findings concerning the supply of warm water prawns to the UK from Thailand, both in the fish meal supply chains locally and the processing factories,” Williams says.
Seafish’s August briefing reported that in 2013 the UK imported 10,000 tonnes of prepared and preserved prawns from Thailand valued at £70m, and 6,000 tonnes of frozen prawns valued at £40m. The UK alone consumes nearly 7% of all Thailand’s prawn exports.
The underlying sentiment among retailers is that some form of action or independent certification of ethical labour practice in warm water prawns is now needed. This may become an EWG goal.
The EWG’s and Seafish’s task is challenging: tackling ethics within a vast, unregulated overseas sector. Seafish’s August briefing on Thailand says there are “issues at all levels of the supply chain” across catching, processing, farms, hatcheries and fishmeal production. It says as many as 90% of the 300,000 people working in the Thai fishing industry are migrant workers, who are vulnerable because of lack of effective immigration policy, corruption of government and police officials and an unregulated recruitment sector involving informal and illegal brokers. There is a particular lack of transparency at the bottom layers of the supply chain, with illegal recruitment most prevalent in supply chains involving fishing trawlers.
The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), an alliance of companies, trade unions and NGOs and a member of the EWG, voices concerns about exploitative labour practices within the lower tiers of Thai farmed shrimp supply chain. “The critical next step is to agree a clear agenda and accompanying action plan, and we welcome the opportunity to help shape this,” says Debbie Coulter, head of programmes at ETI.
Another EWG member, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a UK-based non-profit charity, has previously petitioned Tesco to cease buying seafood from Thailand until it can ”conclusively and transparently” demonstrate its supply chains are free from slavery.
Mike Mitchell, technical and CSR director at Young’s Seafood, tells Ethical Corporation that ethics in seafood supply chains is a societal issue, “which requires far-reaching solutions beyond the reach of even the largest of businesses”. Mitchell says that, acting alone, Young’s could only impact those within its direct influence, struggling to tackle global chains’ complexity, but as part of a broader alliance, such EWG, the firm can promote more widespread and far-reaching change.
Williams says the next year will see the EWG becoming an effective platform for debate and discussion, with plans for key actions taking shape. Although these remain undetermined, a commentator at EWG’s July meeting said: ”We need a set of indicators to help identify where human rights issues are being violated which could be incorporated into an inspection and investigation programme.”fishing seafood seafood supply chains sustainable fishing sustainable supply chains