4 critical ways global seafood retailers can give their consumers confidence

With forced labor and workers’ rights violations alive and widespread in the Thai and Indonesian seafood industry - which supply so much of our seafood globally - how can supermarkets give consumers the confidence that there's no human suffering in the food they buy? Art Prapha, Senior Advisor for the Private Sector, Oxfam America, provides an insightful 4-step plan.

In recent years the exposé of labor scandals in the Thai seafood sector has sent shockwaves through the industry and around the world. Consumers in Europe and the US have made clear they are not willing to purchase prawns and seafood products from supply chains tainted with modern-day slavery and other serious workers’ rights abuses.

This public outrage, along with international pressure from the European Union and the US Government, has placed huge pressure on seafood actors to rectify the situation. A wide range of stakeholders have come together to try and address human rights and environmental sustainability in the Thai seafood industry.

However, Oxfam’s latest report, Supermarket responsibilities for supply chain worker's rights, shows that, despite significant reform efforts, some forms of forced labor and workers’ rights violations are still alive and widespread in the Thai and Indonesian seafood industry. This means that seafood products sold in many supermarkets in the US and Europe are still tainted as far as consumers are concerned. The report calls for global supermarkets, as major buyers of seafood products, to do more by strengthening their sourcing policies and practice to ensure that workers’ rights are protected around the world.

One notable example of retailers’ efforts to date is the Global Seafood Task Force, an international industry alliance of retailers and suppliers seeking to collaborate on addressing social and environmental issues in the industry. The Task Force has worked on improving traceability, developing an industry Code of Conduct, and influencing the Thai government to reform outdated national laws. However, over the past few years, retailers have omitted a crucial element - meaningful engagement with the frontline NGOs who work directly with workers and communities.

This missed opportunity has had unintended but predictable consequences. Reforms and initiatives that retailers and suppliers have put in place struggle to deliver real change on the ground, especially when it comes to issues around recruitment fees, employment conditions, effective grievance mechanisms, workers’ rights to freely associate and to form collective bargaining units, and the lack of communication channels with the most vulnerable groups in their seafood supply chains, including women.

In short, the retailers effectively adopted a ‘top-down’ and hierarchical approach and did not take time to listen to the people affected or consider questions like ‘What involvement of workers and their advocates do we need for our interventions to be successful?’ and more simply ‘What do exploited workers and communities need from us?’

Time for radical retailer engagement

I believe the time for a more radical engagement by retailers is overdue, if interventions are to create impactful and sustainable change. Major supermarkets and buyers need to urgently start a dialogue and learn about the political, social, and economic challenges faced by workers and communities who produce and supply their products. This critical responsibility will ensure that retailers are investing in initiatives that produce results and building relationships based on mutual purpose and respect.

For international retailers who are interested in engaging with national NGOs and trade unions, I propose a four-step engagement process:

1. Reach out and dialogue

This may sound simple but it will prove to be the most effective way for retailers to show they are serious about finding out the real issues and to hear the societal expectations of their companies’ management over their supply chain. This will enable retailers to review capacity gaps and to show their genuine interest in collaborating more directly with national partners. Supermarkets need to be clear about what they would like to achieve – but a leading question could be framed as, “How can we, as retailers, be more helpful in tackling these problems?” Supermarkets need to listen deeply to the responses.

2. Help to protect civil society space

With rising authoritarianism in many countries where supermarkets source products, supermarkets should take note of the closing civil society space in these places. NGOs’ licenses to operate and civic space are being threatened, and many human rights defenders are being subjected to SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) with defamation and criminal charges. Supermarkets should play a greater role in creating a collective network, both nationally and internationally, and provide support when human rights defenders are being threatened to remain silent.

3. Be patient

Be patient as NGOs develop capacity and capability to engage with companies – this has been a major concern from many global retailers from the very beginning. Many retailers feel that national NGOs do not have sufficient skills and capacity, research, governance and advocacy to deliver and so retailers have avoided any kind of engagement. This ‘avoid-at-all-cost’ mentality should be challenged: as the capacity and capability of national NGOs grow, retailers will benefit from this in the medium and long-run, and indeed they can help them grow through effective dialogue.

4. Facilitate access to suppliers’ and their operations

Many national NGOs have told me that one useful way to leverage the ‘power of retailers’ is to facilitate and enable their suppliers to allow third-party NGOs to talk directly to their workers. Workers are often too afraid to voice their real concerns to their employers (suppliers) as they fear retaliation or even being fired.

The lack of genuine worker voice mechanisms in most factories and other workplaces has prevented problems from being identified. National NGOs are well-placed to collect this information, confidentially, through workshops and trusted safe spaces for workers to have these crucial conversations. This process should be seen as complementing the social audits undertaken by companies. Triangulating findings in this way is essential for due diligence processes to be robust.

Giving consumers confidence

This four-step engagement plan should enable global retailers to take their first steps to play a more critical, and more importantly, more direct role to engage with workers and communities.

It will enable retailers to have more clarity on how they can help to solve these very complex social and environmental challenges, and give consumers the confidence to buy their products long into the future.

What you can do

Call on supermarkets now to help end the human suffering behind the food we buy!

This entry posted by Art Prapha, Senior Advisor in the Private Sector Department, Oxfam America, on 3 July 2018.

Photo: Sorting shrimp at the trader’s warehouse, Lamongan auction site, East Java, Indonesia. Credit: Kemal Jufri/Oxfam


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