The Thai seafood industry is plagued with widespread forced labor and other human rights violations, according to a report released last week by Swiss food and beverage giant Nestlé. The yearlong investigation was commissioned by Nestlé and conducted by global NGO Verité. The resulting report exposes and catalogues endemic exploitative working conditions in Thailand’s seafood and shrimping industries. Nestlé found these abuses within its own supply chain and warns that, because of the general vulnerabilities of migrant workers in Thailand, virtually all European and US food companies that purchase seafood from Thailand are at risk of having the abuses in their supply chains as well.
During the investigation, Verité discovered these workers—a majority of whom are from countries like Cambodia and Myanmar—were subject to deceptive recruitment, leading to debt bondage and degrading living conditions. In addition, investigators found many underage workers were forced to fish. The study also found some workers were “sold” to a boat captain, were not paid, worked excessive overtime, had their passports and documentation confiscated, and were subject to verbal and physical abuse.
“Sometimes, the net is too heavy, and workers get pulled into the water and just disappear,” said one Burmese worker who escaped a vessel and spoke with Verité. “When someone dies, he gets thrown into the water. Some have fallen overboard. I had an accident on board. A pulley came loose and fell on me; I almost broke my arm.”
The results of this investigation echo abuses reported by news organizations and other parties over the past few years. For example, the Associated Press dropped a bomb of a report in April exposing the way seafood caught by slaves aboard Thai boats has made its way to major US retailers and been processed into brand-name products. The report places the majority of the blame on loopholes in, and the poor enforcement of, the US law that bans the import of goods produced by forced labor.
Also in April, the European Commission issued Thailand a formal notice lambasting it for not taking sufficient measures to fight illegal fishing. The commission told Thailand to clean up its illegal, unregulated fishing or face being labeled uncooperative.
To ensure its products are not associated with these atrocities, Nestlé announced an action plan that is designed to protect workers from abuse, improve working conditions and tackle unacceptable practices that include juvenile and teenage labor.
“Nestlé is committed to eliminating forced labor in our seafood supply chain in Thailand, working alongside other stakeholders to tackle this serious and complex issue,” says Magdi Batato, executive vice president of operations at Nestlé. “We believe our action plan will help improve the lives of those affected by unacceptable practices. This will be neither a quick nor an easy endeavor, but we look forward to making significant progress in the months ahead.”
Nestlé says it will also work with the Thai government, local seafood suppliers and international buyers as a participant in the multi-stakeholder International Labor Organization (ILO) Working Group, which is seeking collaborative solutions to improve labor conditions in Thailand’s complex seafood export industry.