Why social responsibility matters

Social responsibility is paramount to Seafish and to the entire seafood industry. The definition of social responsibility is the idea that businesses balance profit-making activities with activities that benefit society; it involves developing businesses with a positive relationship to the society in which they operate.

There is no place in any supply chain, regardless of the origin of the product, for employment practices that negatively impact on an individual’s human rights – this is currently presenting an issue for seafood supply chains globally.

In the past 20 years, the seafood industry has focussed on sustainability, responsible sourcing and ethical business practices in the widest sense. More recently, attention has switched to concerns about labour and human rights issues. This changing landscape has directly influenced Seafish’s work.

In the last decade, concerns regarding abuses of workers engaged in the seafood industry have steadily attracted more attention, from the media and civil society advocacy groups. The main concern has been the coercive treatment of certain categories of both sea and land-based workers, through abusive labour and recruitment practices variously referred to as slavery or slavery- like practices, forced and bonded labour, human trafficking, as well as serious forms of child labour.

This complex issue encompasses concerns about labour and human rights issues, it affects many countries and a wide range of products and it challenges the reputation of the seafood sector. This issue is too big and too complex for any individual company or organisation to tackle on their own.

Why seafood?

The seafood landscape is constantly changing with complex supply chains at land and sea and multiple layers of activity. After two decades of working to improve environmental seafood sustainability, seafood retailers, processors and foodservice providers now have to expand their vision of sustainable seafood to embrace both social and environmental dimensions.

Using the UK as an example there are challenges and difficult choices for UK companies that source seafood products both from the UK and overseas countries, particularly those that have an imperfect human rights record. Rather than disengage it takes a huge effort for UK companies to use their influence to achieve gradual improvements in working conditions on vessels and on land in the supplier countries.

It is vital that the seafood industry works proactively to ensure that any abhorrent behaviour of the minority does not tarnish the reputation of the rest of the industry, which has made significant strides in sustainable fisheries development and responsible sourcing.

What is the issue?

Since around 2006 various concerns regarding abuses of workers engaged in the seafood industry have steadily attracted more attention from the media and civil society advocacy groups and this escalated in 2014. The main concerns expressed were about the coercive treatment of certain categories of both sea and land-based workers, through abusive labour and recruitment practices, these are variously referred to as slavery or slavery-like practices, forced and bonded labour, human trafficking, as well as serious forms of child labour. Whilst Thailand and South East Asia were initially the focus there has also been issues highlighted in other countries worldwide and in global seafood supply chains. And these media articles and more detailed studies and reports describing patterns of labour exploitation in the seafood industry continue to appear.

Working collaboratively to address issues

Whilst a zero tolerance position to human trafficking and forced labour is one option this fails to address the root causes. Complex challenges often require complex answers and the need to engage. Instead of immediately stopping trade with a supplier, for example, now many seafood businesses are adopting a remediation focused approach and are seeking ways to better protect potential victims. This worker-first approach calls, in the first instance, for businesses to engage with suppliers to improve practices.

All of these concerns have highlighted the need for transparency in the seafood sector across the whole value chain, from the people consuming the fish back to the fishers who produced or captured it. The increased focus on ethics and human rights in the seafood industry represents an intention to safeguard the rights of the fishers, rather than (or as well as) the fish and the oceans. Any approach to sustainable seafood, whether in codes of practice or labelling initiatives, should now incorporate social as well as environmental dimensions.

Legal imperatives

In addition there are increasing legal imperatives for organisations to identify and address labour abuses in their supply chains. New laws and regulations are emerging that are holding organisations to account for their role in modern slavery, both within their organisation and within their supply chain. This is part of a growing trend around non-financial and mandatory reporting regimes. And this is happening globally.

The new UK Modern Slavery Act is a prime example. It requires companies to report on their measures to prevent and eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains. These modern slavery statements, which have to be evident on the home page of a business’s website, will be examined, ranked and scored by clients, customers, prospective clients, investors and NGOs. Companies will be rated against legal compliance, length and the degree to which they publicly disclose policies, standards and management approaches to mitigating forced labour in their supply chains and in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles.

In addition there are voluntary initiatives which complement these legislative requirements and mandatory reporting regimes. These are usually operating at a sector or geographic level and allow organisations to collaborate and share resources.

There are reports on specific regions and specific topics which can be found within the records for the organisations included within TESS – see below. In addition we have provided links to a number of generic reports in Further Info.

Environmental Justice Foundation >

FishWise >

Issara Institute >

Greenpeace >

Nexus Institute >

Seafish >

Verité >

Press articles on ethical issues in seafood supply chains >

Published reports on ethical issues in seafood supply chains >

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