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Avoid This Seafood From Thailand

In a perfect world, fish may be one of the healthiest food sources on the planet. Rich in omega-3 fats and one of the best dietary sources of vitamin D,1 eating fatty fish has been associated with lower rates of depression, asthma, cognitive decline, heart disease and improved quality of sleep.

However, as waterways are becoming increasingly polluted with pharmaceutical and toxic waste, fish are also contaminated. Wastewater treatment plants have not been designed to remove pollutants in the water from personal care products or pharmaceutical waste products. As a result, once flushed down the drain or toilet, these chemicals end up polluting the waterways2 and your tap water.3

Although Americans are finding new ways to consume seafood, from tacos to salmon pizza, consumption is still below recommended amounts.4 The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a person eating 2,000 calories per day should eat approximately 8 ounces of seafood per week. Current data suggests Americans are eating well below this amount, averaging 2.7 ounces per week, or slightly more than one-third the recommended amount.5

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the reduced consumption could be related to concerns with safety or mislabeling of seafood and fish products, lack of awareness of the health benefits of eating fish and higher retail prices.6 But the dangers of eating seafood are not limited only to pollutants and chemical toxicity; there’s also the fact that commercial fishing strengthens an industry built on the back of forced labor.7

Thailand’s Fishing Industry Fueled by Human Trafficking and Slave Labor

Migrant fishermen from Thailand’s neighboring Southeast Asian countries are made promises and then trafficked into fishing boats where the conditions are deplorable and the workers are unable to leave without being beaten and forced to return to work injured.8 Essentially slave workers for the fishing industry, these men from Cambodia and Burma (Myanmar) are prevented from changing employers, are often not paid on time, and usually are paid a minimum wage for long hours doing work no one else will.

According to Thailand’s law, migrant workers are not protected by labor laws and are not allowed to form any type of workers union. Following an exposé and international uproar, these practices landed Thailand on Tier 3, the lowest of the U.S. Department of State Trafficking of Persons Report, along with the Sudan, North Korea and Central African Republic.9

Additionally, the European Union issued a “yellow card,” warning Thailand it would face a ban on seafood exports to Europe due to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing practices.10

In response, the Thai government issued new ordinances and written regulations for the fishing industry and established some provisions that migrant workers needed legal documents and should be accounted for on crew lists. These changes were weak at best and the results have been even weaker. For instance, under the new system, Human Rights Watch interviews ship captains and owners as well as inspect documents but rarely speaks with the migrant workers.11

The government has also not instituted any effective inspection of boats. The improbable results of a 2015 report revealed not one case of forced labor. Another inspection more recently of nearly 50,000 fishermen did not find a single instance where laws regarding hours, wages, treatment on board ship or other issues had been violated.12 Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, commented on the new changes, saying:13

“What the report found was that although this military government has taken more positive steps forward than the last, the reforms that have been put in place are still largely cosmetic. Forced labor is routine.

The workers we interviewed described being trafficked on to ships, trapped in jobs they couldn’t leave, physical abuse, lack of food, long hours and awful working conditions. The worst thing for many of them was not being paid — the psychological harm and final indignity was the hardest to bear.”

Change Has Been Mostly Cosmetic

Determination of the level a country is ranked on the Trafficking of Persons Report is based on several factors, including:14

“First, the extent to which the country is a country of origin, transit, or destination for severe forms of trafficking. Second, the extent to which the country’s government does not meet the TVPA’s [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] minimum standards and, in particular, the extent to which officials or government employees have been complicit in severe forms of trafficking.

And third, reasonable measures that the government would need to undertake to be in compliance with the minimum standards.”

Following nearly no change to practices in Thailand, the U.S. Department of State upgraded the country from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watchlist.15 This upgrade was a move to smooth relations with a military-run government that had all but died after the military seized power in a coup the U.S. openly condemned.16 Politicians hoped Thailand would improve conditions if they removed the country from the lowest ranking in the report, effectively placing the cart before the horse.

Working within the industry, Steve Trent, executive of the Environmental Justice Foundation, wants the focus of those selling seafood to the consumer to take responsibility for their supply chain, ensuring the products were sourced from chains free from human rights abuses.17

The Sustainable Seafood Task Force, set up in 2015, consisting of supermarkets, buyers and retailers sourcing seafood from Thailand, was created to make the process transparent and bring accountability to the supply chain. Trent believes the Sustainable Seafood Taskforce has essentially failed in their mission, saying:18

“There is no shadow of a doubt that widespread and very serious labor violations are continuing throughout the industry. Buyers and retailers have failed comprehensively to play their part in finding a real solution. Never in my career have I seen a process more focused on talking in hotel rooms in Bangkok rather than actually committing to using their influence to create real change.

I challenge any of the retailers selling Thai seafood to consumers to guarantee that products from Thailand are free from human rights abuses and illegal fishing. They have arguably more power than anyone else and they are failing to use it.”

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