Seafood industry must walk talk

Seafood industry must walk talk

Recently, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) announced that the US will be suspending US$1.3 billion (39.2 billion baht) in trade preferences for Thailand under Generalised System of Preference (GSP) by April 2020. The USTR cited a failure to "adequately provide internationally recognised worker rights" in the seafood industry as the main reason for the withdrawal. Thailand now has six months to negotiate and resolve rights issues before the suspension takes effect.

However, this round of suspension will not affect canned tuna, shrimp, and animal feed products that are often linked to major labour violations exposé. This is because they do not receive GSP privileges in the first place. Following the USTR announcement, major seafood exporters such as Thai Union Group Plc (TU) and Charoen Pokphand Foods Plc (CPF) said that they will not be significantly affected by the suspension. Yet, this is no time to be complacent.

Thailand's seafood industry has been under prolonged scrutiny by international stakeholders, including Oxfam, over its reluctance to support workers' rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Migrant workers in Thailand are not allowed to form trade unions, which led to less effective grievance mechanisms being adopted by companies. These often fail to address workers' concerns legitimately.

Since 2014, Thai seafood companies and their buyers, such as the US, UK and European supermarkets, have been working to address human rights and sustainability in the industry. However, there are critical gaps, especially when it comes to policy implementation. It is time for Thai seafood companies and their buyers to walk the talk, act to end abusive practices, and show how it can be done systematically.

What can the seafood industry do to show that they are serious about human rights and sustainability?

First, the seafood industry should leverage this opportunity to advocate for the Thai government to ratify ILO Conventions 87 and 98, which promotes workers' freedom of association and collective bargaining, especially enabling migrant workers to organise.

The seafood industry should persuade the Thai ministries that adopting international standards should mean translating them into law and effective enforcement. It should also reassure the ministries that this does not imply migrant workers will have more rights than Thai workers -- but it means all workers who are part of the global seafood supply chains enjoy equal fundamental rights as workers.

Second, it is time for the seafood industry to step up on supply chain transparency -- scaling up what is working well and be transparent about what still needs to be done. This includes being more transparent about the company's supply chain traceability and human rights due diligence down to the vessel level.

Large seafood companies should lead the way to improve transparency in their supply chains. Global buyers, as well as NGOs and stakeholders, should ensure those leading seafood companies are recognised rather than being punished for improved transparency. Other seafood companies should be held accountable and supported by the government and their buyers to meet internationally recognised standards for workers' rights.

Third, we should emphasise the importance of bottom-up stakeholders' consultations when scaling efforts to promote workers' rights in supply chains. Seafood firms should aim to narrow the power dynamics between businesses and NGOs in Thailand -- using seafood as a case in point to show that constructive dialogue and engagement can achieve higher positive impacts for companies and workers.

While major Thai exporters are not affected by this current suspension of trade preferences, they must be aware that they have the responsibility to respect human rights in their supply chains. Failing to do so may eventually affect their ability to sell Thai products abroad and subject themselves to further scrutiny by stakeholders. They should seize this moment to demonstrate leadership on transparency and accountability -- and ensure that they are truly walking the talk in the effort to eradicate abuses in their supply chains.

Art Prapha, Oxfam America's Senior Private Sector Adviser.

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