Slavery is a crime – it shouldn’t be up to consumers to fight it

It’s hard to pin down the supply chain for prawns. EPA/Daniel Munoz

The use of slave labour in the global chain that supplies prawns to supermarkets in the US and the UK has been highlighted by a report in The Guardian.

Following a six-month investigation, it was revealed that the Thailand-based corporation and supplier, Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, was using prawn feed derived from the “trash fish” gathered by slave labourers from Burma, Laos and Cambodia. What is more, this human rights violation had continued despite the industry’s awareness of its existence in the Thai fishing industry – and the prawns ended up being bought by us from a roll-call of top food retailers including Walmart, Carrefour, Costco, Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi, Iceland and the Co-operative.

In 2009 a UN inter-agency project on human trafficking (UNIAP) had alerted supermarkets to the enslavement of Cambodian migrants who had been sold to Thai fishing boats. Some 59% of those people interviewed for the report said they had witnessed the murder of another labourer at the hands of the boat captains.

Crime against humanity

Slavery is a crime against humanity. It has been legally defined as such since the end of World War II, and its status reinforced by international agreements, such as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The language of human rights developed through these agreements feeds into the commercial world via the UN’s Global Compact, which outlines the universal principals that ought to frame global business.

How then are we to interpret the reactions of big business and government to the recent news that slave labour, supposedly abolished in 1833, is still being used in a supply chain that brings prawns to our supermarket shelves?

To begin with CP Foods, this multinational corporation admits that slave labour is part of its supply chain. According to a report in The Bangkok Post, Bob Miller, the UK managing director, justifies the failure to attend to this issue by stating that the company lacks the visibility it needs to assess the scale of the problem. Rather than questioning its own commercial practices, for example through rigorous auditing and remedial action plans, CP Food intends to use its “commercial weight” to influence the Thai government in addressing the slave trade network from which it has been directly benefiting.

Indeed, the scale of human trafficking in Thailand has reached such a height that it has just been downgraded to the lowest rank in the state department’s Trafficking in Persons report, putting the country on a par with North Korea, Iran and Qatar.

Passing the buck

As for the supermarkets, they too admit that they were aware of the problem, but likewise lament the complexity of the supply chains that prevents access to information. To quote Kevin Grace, the group commercial director for Tesco, it is “complex to reach down to lower levels of the supply chain”.

Of course, the existence of The Guardian report, combined with the previous UNIAP report in 2009, suggests that these difficulties are eminently surmountable if the will exists to do so. Like CP Foods, Tesco and many other supermarket spokespersons talk about “exerting pressure”, but this time on their suppliers, while affirming a shared belief that “if we use the market we have the opportunity to help make it better”.

They have promised not to “walk away from a problem that is too appalling to ignore”. But there is not enough of a recognition that it was the market forces driven by big chain supermarkets that squeezed every last penny out of the supply chain in the first place; the logical result of which is free labour, or slavery.

Blind faith in the market also rings through government discourse. The initial response from David Cameron’s official spokesperson was that consumers should be allowed to decide whether or not to eat prawns produced through the work of slaves since “social responsibility is often driven by consumers and rightly so”.

Are we to assume that responsibility for societal change rests with the consumer, who must actively choose whether or not to buy the prawns, rather than the government, which continues to have primary responsibility for the protection of human rights? The assumption is that consumers have access to the kind of information that the supermarkets themselves find “too complex” to investigate.

Since then, Jenny Willott, the Lib Dem minister for Employment Relations and Consumer Affairs, has deferred responsibility back to the supermarkets, with recommendations that the British Retail Consortium (BRC) takes steps to eradicate human rights abuses from their supply chains. But even here, the recommendations are limited, stopping short of forcing companies to declare any potential links to slavery through their suppliers and thus declaring their vested interests.

And so the infernal circle of deferral and moral one-upmanship is complete, with each step in the supply chain shifting their responsibility onto another agent, be it the Thai government, the supplier, the supermarket or the consumer. What is missing in this tactical game is any sense of accountability.

The prawn case is simply one of an indeterminable number of similar cases where industry standards have been flouted to the detriment of human life – let’s not forget the Bangladesh Rana Plaza disaster that occurred just over a year ago. Does this not suggest that we have reached a critical point where the capacity of industry to self-regulate through largely voluntary adherence to basic standards is woefully insufficient?

If nation states are unwilling (or unable) to protect human rights, should companies not be held accountable under international law for any complicity (direct or otherwise) in these abuses? Slavery is not a consumer choice. It is a crime against humanity. The fight for its abolition is therefore as much about our own personal decisions, as it is about the extension of an international legal framework that is capable of holding global trade to account.

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