Fishing sector needs a clean slate
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Fishing sector needs a clean slate

The US Trade Representative (USTR) recently announced the suspension of trade preferences for Thailand under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) -- covering more than 500 products ranging from food to manufactured goods. The reason cited was Thailand's failure to adequately protect workers' rights.

This decision affects approximately US$1.3 billion (39.3 billion baht) in trade and stems from a broader complaint filed in 2013 by the AFL CIO -- the largest US labour union federation. The submission focuses on workers' rights violations; in particular, workers' ability to form and join unions and the potential for forced labour in all sectors.

Since the AFL-CIO's original and subsequent submissions, Thailand has improved in its rating in the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report to Tier 2. While there is still room for improvement, even the US government has recognised improvements made by Thailand in recent years on worker rights and broader human rights. The European Union also lifted its Yellow Card warning against Thailand at the start of 2019, recognising the significant progress made to address Illegal, Unregulated, and Unreported (IUU) fishing. Despite this progress, NGO dialogue remains largely the same, as we have seen in recent days.

There is a lot of speculation on the USTR's motives. The GSP trade agreement has never benefited high value exports -- including tuna and shrimp -- so these changes will have little effect on the US export focused seafood industry. Companies such as Thai Union were quick to be transparent and say that they do not foresee a significant business impact as an outcome of this revocation. Nonetheless, we consider it our responsibility to address and show leadership on workers' rights in the seafood industry.

The Global Benchmarking Alliance recently produced the inaugural Seafood Stewardship Index, independently benchmarking the 30 largest seafood companies globally, to promote transparency in the global seafood industry. Thai Union ranked number one globally in this index, and Charoen Pokphand Foods ranked number three globally. It is not accurate to say that the seafood industry in Thailand is not showing leadership -- on the world stage and in many ways, Thailand's seafood industry in Thailand is indeed showing leadership. The dialogue within the international community, including media coverage, needs to recognise the progress being made both by the industry and by the Thai government, as well as where future challenges lie that have yet to be addressed. The lack of information from other countries and sectors cannot be assumed to be lack of problems -- it is a sign of data deficiency and unknown risk.

Thai Union takes worker rights seriously. Safe and Legal Labour is a key pillar of Thai Union's sustainability strategy, SeaChange®. Enshrined in Thai Union's Business Ethics and Labour Code of Conduct are commitments to freedom of association and human rights. In 2016, we chose to strengthen the Worker Welfare Committees in our factories in Thailand, working in collaboration with the Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN). Along with MRWN, we established one of the world's first large-scale ethical recruitment programmes. In an effort to increase transparency, this programme has recently been independently reviewed and was identified as a significant landmark in improving migrant recruitment practices.

In 2018, Thai Union issued a letter supporting free association and collective bargaining by workers in Thailand, expressing our support for the establishment of the International Transport Worker's Federation (ITF) Fishers Rights Network (FRN). We believe that these initiatives will be a factor in creating a positive change in fisher wages, benefits, and working conditions, and reflect positively on the Thai fishing sector. Thai Union has run workshops for fishers from vessels on health and safety and human rights with the ITF and other collaborators. The ongoing work on Thai Union's Vessel Code of Conduct and Vessel Improvement Programme takes a worker-centric approach and puts their voices at the heart of the programme.

We are proud of our policies on workers' rights. As a global company, we cannot make industry-wide progress alone, but only with cooperation across the industry, governments and civil societies. More transparency is needed to really understand what the issues are and how we can solve them. Civil society needs to keep a track of what is actually happening and recognise when there needs to be a change of dialogue or focus. We as a society need more decisions to be made on evidence, not rhetoric.

We call on governments, industry stakeholders, and civil society to join with us in advocating for change that will have real and lasting impact.

Together, we can talk the talk, and walk the walk.

Darian McBain, PhD, is Thai Union's Global Director, Corporate Affairs and Sustainability.

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