Nestle says forced labour, abuse common among Thai seafood suppliers

Migrant workers toiling in Thailand’s seafood industry to supply Nestle SA and other global companies are subjected to hazardous, exploitative and degrading conditions in which some fishermen are even sold to other boat captains, a report commissioned by the company found.

Report concludes virtually all US, European companies buying seafood exposed to slavery risks

Published: 24/11/2015 at 03:45 PM

Migrant workers toiling in Thailand’s seafood industry to supply Nestle SA and other global companies are subjected to hazardous, exploitative and degrading conditions in which some fishermen are even sold to other boat captains, a report commissioned by the company found.

The unusual disclosure from Geneva-based Nestle, part of plan for self-policing, concluded a year-long internal investigation on Monday. The study found virtually all US and European companies buying seafood from Thailand are exposed to the same risks of abuse in their supply chains.

Nestle, among the biggest food companies in the world, launched the investigation in December after reports from news outlets and nongovernmental organizations tied brutal and largely unregulated working conditions to their shrimp, prawns and Purina brand pet foods. Its findings echo those of The Associated Press, the Guardian, Global Post and other media outlets that have resulted in the rescue of more than 2,000 fishermen.

The report conducted by Verite on behalf of Geneva-based Nestle and released Monday found “indicators of forced labour, trafficking, and child labour to be present among sea-based and land-based workers.” The findings “present an urgent challenge to any company sourcing seafood,” the company said.

Authorities check the legal documentation for migrant workers aboard fishing boats in Chumphon province in this July file photo. (Post Today photo)

Thailand’s seafood industry has come under global scrutiny in recent years following reports that showed widespread abuse of workers, mainly migrants from neighbouring Cambodia and Myanmar.

The mistreatment was cited by the US in its annual report on human trafficking, in which Thailand remained at the lowest level in 2015, as well as in civil lawsuits filed by consumers in the US accusing companies such as Nestle and Costco Wholesale Corp of selling seafood caught using slave labour.

“Sometimes, the net is too heavy and workers get pulled into the water and just disappear. When someone dies, he gets thrown into the water,” one Burmese worker told Verite.

“I have been working on this boat for 10 years. I have no savings. I am barely surviving,” said another. “Life is very difficult here.”

The European Union threatened earlier this year to ban Thai seafood imports if the country fails to improve the regulation of its fishing industry. The government has said it is working to address the concerns.

Nestle said it would post the reports online — as well as a detailed yearlong solution strategy throughout 2016 — as part of ongoing efforts to protect workers. It has promised to impose new requirements on all potential suppliers and train boat owners and captains about human rights, possibly with a demonstration vessel and rewards for altering their practices. It also plans to bring in outside auditors and assign a high-level Nestle manager to make sure change is underway.

“As we’ve said consistently, forced labour and human rights abuses have no place in our supply chain,” Magdi Batato, Nestle’s executive vice president in charge of operations, said in a written statement. “Nestle believes that by working with suppliers we can make a positive difference to the sourcing of ingredients.

“This will be neither a quick nor an easy endeavour, but we look forward to making significant progress in the months ahead.”

In this handout photograph released by Indonesia’s Ministry of Fishery in April, hundreds of rescued foreign fishermen mostly from Myanmar and Thailand are gathered by Indonesia’s illegal fishing task force accompanied by Thai officials during an operation in Benjina island of Maluku province. (AFP photo)

Nestle is not a major purchaser of seafood in Southeast Asia but does some business in Thailand, primarily for its Purina brand Fancy Feast cat food.

For its study, Verite interviewed more than 100 people, including about 80 workers from Myanmar and Cambodia, as well as boat owners, shrimp-farm owners, site supervisors and representatives of Nestle’s suppliers. They visited fish ports and fishmeal packing plants, shrimp farms and docked fishing boats, all in Thailand.

Boat captains and managers, along with workers, confirmed violence and danger in the Thai seafood sector, a booming industry which exports US$7 billion of products a year, although managers said workers sometimes got hurt because they were drunk and fighting.

Boat captains rarely checked ages of workers, and Verite found underage workers forced to fish. Workers said they labour without rest, their food and water are minimal, outside contact is cut off, and they are given fake identities to hide that they are working illegally.

Generally, the workers studied by Verite were catching and processing fish into fishmeal fed to shrimp and prawns. But the Amherst, Massachusetts-based group said many of the problems they observed are systemic and not unique to Nestle; migrant workers throughout Thailand’s seafood sector are vulnerable to abuses as they are recruited, hired and employed, said Verite.

Monday’s disclosure is rare. While multinational companies in industries from garments to electronics say they investigate allegations of abuse in their supply chains, they rarely share negative findings.

“It’s unusual and exemplary,” said Mark Lagon, president of the nonprofit Freedom House, a Washington-based anti-trafficking organization. “The propensity of the PR and legal departments of companies is not to ‘fess up, not to even say they are carefully looking into a problem for fear that they will get hit with lawsuits,” he said.

In fact, Nestle is already being sued: In August, pet food buyers filed a class-action lawsuit alleging Fancy Feast cat food was the product of slave labour associated with Thai Union Frozen Products, a major distributor. It’s one of several lawsuits filed in recent months against major US retailers importing seafood from Thailand.