Human Trafficking: Why Australia must introduce ethical supply-chain legislation for the seafood industry
This policy brief addresses Australia’s complicity in slavery and human trafficking in the seafood supply—chains of our major importers of fresh and frozen Thai seafood products. Australia does not condone nor permit any form of slavery, yet bonded labour, forced labour and trafficking are acknowledged as endemic in the Thai fishing industry, the supplier of nearly all of Australia’s lower—value seafood products and Australia’s major source country for imported prawns. This disparity in labour practices between our domestic and international producers not only creates lopsided business forces with which Australian seafood producers cannot compete; it also creates and sustains market demand for these products and implicitly perpetuates and condones practices of slavery universally acknowledged as abhorrent and in breach of every international slavery convention to which Australia is a signatory.
The extent of human trafficking and slavery in the Thai fishing industry is significant, and whilst no official figures exist, the Thai government estimates that up to 90% (270,000) of the 300,000 persons working within this industry are vulnerable to being “duped, trafficked and sold to the sea”. Such figures are supported by the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index, according to which nearly 500,000 people are currently believed to be enslaved within Thailand’s borders. Due to its failure to address slavery and human trafficking concerns, Thailand has been placed on the Tier 2 Watchlist of the United States’ State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report for three consecutive years. Additionally, Thailand recently avoided a mandatory TIP downgrade to Tier 3 status following the Thai government’s submission of a plan outlining its proposed steps to combat trafficking in Thailand. Such a downgrade would have placed Thailand amongst the ‘worst of the worst’ group of states for trafficking in the world, states regarded by the US as “countries whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” Despite Thailand’s claims to be addressing the problem, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) believes the Thai government has failed in its efforts to stop human trafficking and questions its commitment to make any serious efforts to do so. Moreover, the EJF has presented evidence documenting the complicity of the Thai police in profiting from trafficking, practices which effectively stymie the Thai government’s stated plans to address the practices of trafficking and slavery.
In view of the Thai government’s continuing inability to effectively address the problem, and given the dual importance of the Thai seafood industry to Australia together with Australia’s obligations under a raft of international trafficking conventions which it has signed and ratified, this paper recommends introducing ethical supply chain legislation to Australia. This will allow Australia to join the ranks of a range of other countries who have already enacted such legislation, including the United States, France, Denmark, Brazil and Belgium. Furthermore, this paper calls on the federal government to support this legislation through the promulgation of a widespread multi—channel media campaign to promote public awareness of the extent of the slavery problem in the East Asian seafood industry to allow Australian consumers to make informed choices regarding their seafood consumption. Finally this paper calls on the federal government to introduce a mandatory labeling scheme clearly stating the country of origin of all fresh and frozen imported seafood products.
Context and importance of the problem
Historically, Australia has differed from many developed countries in that much of our domestic seafood catch – both wild capture and aquaculture – which could be used to supply the domestic market, is exported. In recent years, East Asian aquaculture has expanded significantly, with Thailand ranked sixth highest food fish producer in the world for 2010-2011 by the UN’s World Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The high Australian dollar has meant that farmed Thai seafood can be imported into Australia at very low prices, meeting Australian consumers’ demand for low price seafood products. Irrefutably, the use of trafficking, forced and bonded labour by Thai producers considerably reduces their production costs and allows such suppliers to supply the Australian market with product at prices with which Australian producers cannot compete, given the obligation on Australian producers to meet a range of strict industry employment standards guaranteeing the rights of Australian workers, and the high level of monitoring and regulation with which these industry standards are enforced. Consequently, it is cheaper for Australian consumers to purchase imported seafood rather than the home—grown product.
By introducing ethical supply—chain legislation together with the various monitoring mechanisms that such legislation will entail, the Australian government hopes to pressure major seafood importers into eliminating such practices as trafficking, forced and bonded labour from their supply chains, thereby enabling them to meet their humanitarian obligations whilst simultaneously increasing their supply costs. There is little Australia can do directly to target Thai seafood producers, however by targeting our major suppliers, we hope to indirectly pressure the producers into improving the working conditions for their <largely immigrant> workers. And with almost 75% of the seafood Australians consume – or 20,000 tonnes – currently being imported, the potential impact of such legislatory measures is considerable. Ultimately the economic aim of this legislation is to affect a leveling of the playing—field, allowing Australian producers to compete more effectively for a share of the domestic seafood market whilst maintaining current export growth levels. This is potentially of significant benefit to Australian seafood producers, given that Australia’s appetite for seafood is growing. Recent figures show seafood consumption in Australia over the 1975 – 2010 period increased from 13.6 kg per person to 25 kg per person, effectively a doubling in volume.
Globally, slavery is currently at levels unprecedented in human history. At its peak, the total slave population in North America (in the US South) had grown to almost four millions persons by 1860, with Caribbean slavery numbers peaking at 1.2 million in 1790. In contrast, according to the Walk Free Foundation – which annually produces its Global Slavery Index – surveying the extent of slavery in 162 countries worldwide – there are currently 29.8 million people trapped in slavery around the world. According to the EJF, “a lack of transparency and oversight” means that in many regions worldwide, fishing depends heavily on human trafficking and forced labour, which, the EJF asserts, is the case in Thailand. Moreover, the forces of globalisation now allow international seafood producers ready access to international markets and the potential profits that such access brings. Whilst Australia supports such market growth, and welcomes the growth in the economic prosperity of our East Asian partners, Australia also believes that this growth should not come at the human cost that such widespread slavery entails. Consequently, to date Australia has signed and ratified a raft of anti—trafficking conventions, including:
- The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (2005) <United Nations Trafficking Protocol>
- The United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2005)
- The Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power (1985)
- Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air (2005)
Under Article 9(5) of the Trafficking Protocol, states are required to:
… adopt or strengthen legislative or other measures, such as educational, social or cultural measures, including through bilateral and multilateral corporation, to discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons that leads to trafficking.
Thus, this paper contends that the introduction of ethical supply—chain legislation will improve Australia’s ability to meet its international obligations under the terms of the United Nations Trafficking Protocol.
Critique of policy options
Currently efforts to combat human trafficking in Australia have dealt almost solely with domestic instances of sex trafficking. Estimates regarding the magnitude of sex trafficking annually in Australia vary. For example, the Center for Gender Equity in Washington estimates that 300 women are brought into Australia annually to be trafficked in the sex industry whilst also contending that up to 1,000 women are currently working in Australia as sex slaves. Such figures are in variance with those provided by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) who state that since record—keeping commenced in 2004, approximately 200 victims of (sex) trafficking have come to their attention, leading the AFP to conclude that trafficking in persons does not occur on a very large scale in Australia. Data collected by NGOs, however, suggests that the extent of sex trafficking in Australia is higher than such figures indicate, with the Australian Institute of Criminology recently concluding that there is currently no consensus on the extent of human trafficking in Australia and that the actual numbers are likely to be higher than those detected by government authorities would indicate.
Whilst this paper acknowledges the seriousness of sex trafficking and the importance of Australian authorities’ ongoing efforts to eradicate it, it also identifies a dichotomy between focusing all our efforts on sex trafficking in one industry which upper estimates indicate involve 1,000 persons, whilst currently doing nothing to address human trafficking, forced and bonded in labour in another industry, which current estimates indicate an involvement of 270,000 persons annually. Moreover, we identify a further dichotomy between on the one hand ensuring our human rights obligations are met in our domestic fishing industry, while doing little to ensure similar conditions are enforced in the international fishing industry whose imports – as previously stated – supply up to 75% of domestic seafood consumption.
With no ethical supply—chain legislation currently in place in Australia, there is little motivation placed on seafood importers to eliminate trafficking, slavery and forced and bonded labour from their supply—chains. And while countries such as Australia continue to allow this status quo to be perpetuated, little will change.
Following this review of the context and importance of the issue of human trafficking in the supply chains of many of our East Asian import partners – and the ongoing impact this is having on the profitability of the Australian fishing industry, this paper makes the following policy recommendations for the federal government to consider:
- Introduce ethical supply chain legislation
Australia now has the opportunity to learn from a range of existing international approaches to address the issue of human trafficking. A brief survey of current approaches follows:
- Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (2005) is used to monitor the use of child and forced labour in the supply chains of imported goods
- United States Department of Labour annually publishes a list of imported goods believed to have been produced with forced, bonded or child labour in violation of international standards
- California – Transparency in Supply Chains Act (2010) requires major retailers and importers with gross receipts exceeding $100 million annually to disclose their efforts to eliminate human slavery and trafficking from their supply chains
- enforces a system of mandatory Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting mechanisms for its 1,100 largest companies
- uses a ‘social balance sheet’ for full CSR disclosure by companies with in excess of 300 employees. This requires these companies to detail the complete origin and working conditions of their workers.
- Brazil’s National Pact for the eradication of Slave Labour (2005) is a voluntary initiative that aims to compel signatories to maintain supply—chains free from slave labour through a range of training, reporting, contractual and auditing mechanisms
As this brief survey reveals, a range of international approaches exist from which Australia can learn. This paper recommends the introduction of ethical supply—chain legislation to Australia, which will require all Australian seafood importers with gross annual receipts in excess of AUD $20 million to adhere to a code of corporate social responsibility requiring them to annually disclose their efforts to eliminate slavery, forced and bonded labour and human trafficking from the supply—chains of all goods they import for commercial retail sale within Australia.
- Multi—channel media publicity campaign
This paper further recommends that the introduction of such legislation be preceded by a multi—channel (print, social and digital) media publicity campaign detailing the extent of slavery and human trafficking in the seafood supply chains in East Asia and the government’s commitment to address this issue through legislation and CSR codes for our major importers of East Asian seafood.
- Mandatory labelling of all fresh and frozen imported seafood
Finally this paper recommends that the above two initiatives be complimented by a system of mandatory labeling, compelling all seafood importers to accurately label all fresh and frozen seafood products, clearly stating their country of origin. Moreover it is recommended that such labeling incorporate a ‘CSR green tick’ scheme where products marked with the ‘CSR green tick’ will indicate to consumers that the product has been supplied by importers who adhere to the ethical supply—chain legislation and have had their supply—chains independently assessed as being free from slave labour and human trafficking.
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