Sushi and Slavery

In the last year, The Guardian shocked the world of seafood by releasing their investigative journalism regarding slavery in the seafood industry. Migrants had been trafficked and sold as slaves in the cut throat race towards cheap seafood for international consumption. We look forward to hearing the panel in September which will go into further detail into slavery and seafood. Sushi lovers already worry about the sustainability of their seafood. Over the past year, sushi lovers have had to worry that the sushi they are eating was fished using slave labor.

The panel will discuss what has been done in light of these shocking discoveries, covering the scope of forced labor in the seafood supply chain, the impact of monitoring and policing, and the way that restaurants, merchants, and large markets are responding to the information that they may be involuntarily complicit to slavery and poor working conditions.

Consumers want to buy ethically, but there is also a pressing demand for cheap seafood that has caused a race to the bottom in terms of prices – and what unscrupulous people are willing to do to maximize their profits. The panel will also cover whether traceability schemes can be trusted to actually ensure ethical treatment of the people involved in the seafood industry from the moment it is caught to the moment the food is served on your plate. Consumers want to buy ethical seafood. They need to be able to trust the bodies certifying their food.

The reality of the seafood industry is that it is inescapably international. Unless you want to purchase only local seafood, it is very likely that you are buying food from across the world. This includes Thailand, where The Guardian uncovered the instances of slavery last year. Can consumers trust the governments of all of the nations involved to be robust enough to be able to guarantee the traceability of their seafood? These questions will be discussed at the conference in detail in the panel, comprised of Annie Kelly, Guardian Journalist, Steve Trent, founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation, Libby Woodhatch, head advocacy of Seafish, and more experts in the field to be announced shortly. Accountability is key, and international certification agreements are only as strong as their weakest party.

The situation is a complex one. The UK government considers large companies to be required to ensure they are purchasing their seafood “slavery free”, and to annually discloses measures they have taken to confirm this. At the same time, companies are demanding that there be certification standard that proves that vessels are not engaging in practices of slavery, among other human rights violations. It feels as if each party involved is leaning on another to fix the issue. The panel will show what each party has concretely achieved to address the problem.

To further complicate the situation, it is possible that even a concentrated effort to trace seafood from the source to the plate to assure there is no slavery could only scratch the surface of the problem. For example, let us look at Thailand, where The Guardian uncovered instances of slavery. Seafish, one of the organizations presenting in the panel, stated in their blog on October 17, 2014 that “the nature of the problem in Thailand relates chiefly to the vessels catching the small fish used for fishmeal production (used as feed for warm water prawns), rather than the vessels landing seafood for direct human consumption”. Can consumers be certain that even if their seafood is certified, that the companies will not be using or complicit in inhumane methods in other parts of the supply chain?

The problem is convoluted and murky, and we hope that the panel will shed some light on the nuances of the international seafood supply chain. In the meantime, I’m more inclined to buy local – but I, unlike others, am lucky enough to be living right next to the Pacific Ocean. Seafood is healthy and nutritious, and health conscious consumers will purchase it over red meat and other products, as long as the price is right. Will we be able to buy seafood ethically and at an affordable price? Let’s hope the panel pulls no punches. As consumers, we have a right to make informed choices.

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