AP investigation renews US pressure on Thai government to end labor abuses in seafood sector

Industrials Associated Press

The U.S. government and major business leaders are renewing their call on the Thai government to crack down on slavery in its fishing fleets, and to punish people who force migrant workers to catch seafood that can end up in the United States.

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The State Department, the U.S. seafood and retail industries and a member of Congress reacted swiftly Wednesday to an Associated Press investigation published this week that found slave-caught fish clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States. The AP reported that hundreds of men were trapped on the remote Indonesian island of Benjina, and tracked seafood they caught to Thai exporters who then sell to the U.S.

"It has become increasingly clear that workers in the fishing industry, many of whom are migrants, are exploited at multiple points along the supply chain, from harvesting to processing," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a briefing Wednesday.

The State Department blacklisted Thailand last year for failing to meet minimum standards in fighting human trafficking. Psaki did not say whether current trade talks with Thailand include labor rights.

The National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the National Fisheries Institute, in a letter to the ambassadors of Thailand and Indonesia, also demanded to know what will be done to free the slaves described in AP's coverage and bring their masters to justice. The industry leaders said that in the past they have asked the Thai government to address forced labor, but have lacked specific allegations.

"The AP article changes this dynamic," they wrote.

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The Thai government says it is cleaning up the problem and has laid out a plan to address labor abuse, including new laws that mandate wages, sick leave and shifts of no more than 14 hours. However, Thailand's military leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has asked the media not to report on human trafficking without considering how the news will affect the country's seafood industry and reputation abroad.

Thailand's biggest seafood company, Thai Union Frozen Products, announced that it immediately cut ties with a supplier Wednesday after determining it might be involved with forced labor and other abuses. Thai Union did not name the supplier.

In the U.S., many companies that sell seafood from Thailand have said they are already taking steps to prevent labor abuse in their supply chains. Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, which represents about 75 percent of U.S. seafood sellers, said AP's reports of labor abuses "have been particularly painful for the seafood community."

He added that his members now plan to follow up using details from the report.

"Pointing to specific boats, producers and processors gives us the ability to push for aggressive investigation and enforcement," said Gibbons.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said legislation can be part of the solution, and is reintroducing a law requiring large companies to disclose policies to keep their supply chains free of slavery.

"The reporting by The Associated Press reveals that even though we outlawed slavery in America, we're still importing too many products created with slave labor," Maloney said. "That's wrong, and we need federal legislation to help stop it."

Oceana, a nonprofit watchdog, is pressing yet another solution: Use satellite tracking to identify fishing vessels pulling illegal harvests in foreign waters, and traceability tools to follow a fish from boat to plate.

"Until now, fishing on the high seas was often out of sight, out of mind," said Jacqueline Savitz, vice president for the nonprofit Oceana. "Illegal fishing and other horrible practices such as slavery on the open ocean have gone virtually unseen and continue to occur."

The more than 40 men the AP interviewed on Benjina said captains on their fishing boats forced them to drink unclean water and work 20- to 22-hour shifts with no days off. Almost all said they were kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest. They were paid little or nothing.

The Obama Administration plans to convene experts next month to learn about surveillance and enforcement technologies being piloted to track fishing in marine protected areas around the world. The State Department, Defense Department and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are all participating.

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Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed from Washington.