Photograph of commercial fishing vessels

How Thailand’s Fishing Industry and Your Tuna Melt Are Linked to Human Trafficking

By Stephen Wood

I used to be averse to mayonnaise and I still am for its use as a condiment or in dishes like coleslaw or potato salad. My grandmother made our potato salad with oil and vinegar and lots of garlic and our coleslaw was vinegar-based too. I would tell friends that I was allergic to mayonnaise so that they wouldn’t slather it on my bologna sandwich or make me eat chicken salad. I’m not sure why this is the case; mayonnaise is made from stuff I like — eggs, salt, and vinegar — and when homemade can be really delicious. It’s just weird. But something changed that. I wanted to eat tuna. Not the blue or yellow-fin tuna that you grill as a steak or to enjoy as sushi, but canned tuna. This transition happened when I moved out of my family’s home and into an apartment. I was working and living on my own and soon realized I needed to eat on the cheap. I wasn’t used to eating on the cheap. I like lobster, escargot, flank steaks, and good wine. But I was broke and on a budget so I decided that I was going to brave it and eat canned tuna. With mayonnaise. I perfected a recipe. It has tuna, mayo, celery, onion, cumin seeds, and salt. It’s topped with shredded cheese and toasted and it is delicious. I’ve overcome my aversion to mayonnaise for this one thing, and also occasionally deviled eggs. But there is a problem.

The problem is where that tuna came from and how it got here. Thailand is one of the worlds largest exporters of fish in the world market. It exports over 25 million kilos of fish to the United States, which equates to over 5.8 billion dollars of canned tuna, shrimp, sardines, and other products. Sea to shelf products are rated by several factors including sustainability, traceability, and equity. Of the fourteen brands from Thailand that supply canned tuna, five failed these rankings and the remaining nine only ranked as fair. There is another thing to consider, however, and it’s a practice far too common in the Thai fishing industry: human trafficking.

Over-fishing has dropped fishing stocks worldwide and to compete, the industry has had to rely on cost-cutting measures. Labor is one of the most cost-intensive aspects of the industry and, therefore, a target for cost-cutting measures. The result: Thailand has a blind eye to the use of forced labor and trafficked individuals. The process starts with a broker who recruits poverty-stricken men from Cambodia and Myanmar. They are brought to Thailand with the hope of work and then literally sold to boat captains in a highly unregulated seafood industry. Once on board they are worked to the point of exhaustion, facing 22-hour work days, horrible sleeping arrangements and rotting bait for food. They face sexual harassment, risk of injury, and in some cases death. There are reports of individuals being thrown overboard for disobedience or simply making a mistake.

This is horrible. I just went to my own cupboard and I have a couple of brands implicated in this industry. The country of origin is often located on the bottom of the can and Thailand is among them. I’m already restricted with regard to my seafood choices. My wife is a marine biologist so shrimp, blue-fin, swordfish, farmed salmon, and a few other favorites are already are already off the menu. But canned tuna? Give me a break!

The fact is that Thailand and several other countries are leading fisheries because of illegal, human-rights violating practices.This includes human trafficking. Workers are brought in primarily from Cambodia and Laos with the promise of a decent wage, only to be trapped into working on boats with poorly regulated safety conditions. Some of them are indentured to these boat captains for years. Others have died at the hands of either inadequate safety measures or in some reported cases, murdered by angry crew or captains. The European Commission has provided a “yellow card” warning to Thailand, and Thailand has made some changes. They adopted new laws that require all workers have legal documents, each boat to have workers lists inspected at port and at sea, and that days at sea are limited to 30 days. These are positive changes and have helped to reduce some of the worst atrocities. But many fear this is just a paper-trail, and that actual changes are still grossly inadequate. And Thailand is not alone. Similar sanctions are in place against Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Guinea.

As consumers, most of us are trying to buy things that we feel good about buying. No one is going out with the intention of buying products that are known to be connected to human trafficking. I honestly had no idea that the manufacture and distribution of canned tuna had humans rights implications. Consumer choices are important though. Money is the language that all corporations speak and our individual choices can make a difference. There are several websites that can help identify products that come from countries and companies that utilize fair labor practices to help with these decisions for anything from coffee, to rice, blueberries, strawberries and even fireworks. It’s actually appalling how many of our everyday products have links to trafficking.

Human trafficking is pervasive in industry and the worlds fisheries are just one example. Where your tuna is coming from however is an important reminder to be a thoughtful consumer and purchase brands that are fair trade and ethically produced. At a much larger scale, the United States, the European Union and other countries must impose and stick to regulations and restrictions, including bans on products that involve any form of human trafficking. Furthermore, U.S. companies need to be held to high standards that includes labeling the country of origin to allow for traceability. There needs be a clearly resonating message that human trafficking is not tolerated and that has to come at every level, from the consumer, national legislative efforts,  to the worlds powers.





Stephen Wood

Stephen P. Wood, MS, ACNP is an acute care nurse practitioner practicing emergency medicine in Boston, Massachusetts, and a fellow in bioethics at the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

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