Protecting human rights

Fish processing staff

Chris Ninnes, CEO of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, offers an overview of the challenges faced by the seafood sector and what can be done to improve the social performance of seafood supply chains

The recent investigations uncovering human rights abuses in the farmed seafood industry, most recently in the shrimp industry in India, are very unsettling to read. While we all agree that these abuses should have no place in any industry, the reality is starker and more uncomfortable.

Human rights abuses can be found everywhere and no system alone is perfect at eliminating all of them. The Seafood Certification and Ratings Collaboration’s data tool (see footnote 1), which was originally developed to collate information about the environmental performance of seafood production from member assessments, now contains a global overview of key social metrics related to their occurrence. Shockingly, there is evidence of forced labour, child labour or human trafficking within 65% of the countries assessed that are involved with 98% of seafood production. The frequency of these abuses differs by country, but such evidence is much harder to collect.

So, what can be done? How do companies and businesses assess the risk that they may be purchasing seafood that does not meet the standards we all expect? It starts with being honest about the risk and understanding how likely your exposure is.

Workers at shrimpfarm

Workers at shrimp

The following simple questions will help assess this risk. Do you know exactly where your seafood was produced? Do you have visibility of all steps in the supply chain? Does your supply chain involve limited intermediaries? Are these intermediaries free from the use of migrant labour? If you answered “no” or “don’t know” to these questions, then your business is at increased risk of having seafood tainted with human rights abuses.

Given that seafood is the most highly traded food commodity globally and that most markets, particularly those in Europe, North America and Japan, are far from self-sufficient from domestic production, the uncomfortable reality is that most supply chains are at risk. For instance, around 90% of the seafood consumed in the US is imported. In the European Union, the percentage is lower at around 70%.  But calculations are further complicated because national fleets owned directly or flagged out to third countries are also involved in domestic supply. Such supplies originating from international waters carry increased risk of human rights exposure. (2).

Poverty brings risks
Another unpalatable risk factor is the underlying poverty in the country of production or processing matters, along with poverty levels in the country of origin of migrant workers.

The rise of global supply chains has increased production and processing efficiency because labour costs are lower and regulatory frameworks are less restrictive. This is illustrated by the relative absence of farmed seafood production in Europe, US and Japan, driven by the regulatory burden of establishing seafood farms. But with increasing competition for processing and seafood farming production between countries, the incentive to reduce labour costs also increases. This is often linked to the use of migrant labour, a cost-cutting exercise as domestic labour becomes less available.



The uncomfortable link between low labour costs and the presence of migrant labour with human rights abuses is well documented across sectors. This has been starkly exposed within the seafood sector in the distant water fishing fleets operating on the high seas, with shocking accounts of human rights abuses. Again, the uncomfortable link is that decreasing catches from poorly managed stocks and increasing operating costs (especially fuel), increase pressure to lower the cost of labour to the extent that modern slavery has been exposed.

While assessing these fundamental risks is a starting point, action across the supply chain from the end business buyer to the point of production is needed to reduce identified risks. Increasingly, legislation is driving businesses to “own” this risk. It is no longer sufficient to mitigate the risk through sourcing guidelines. Honestly owning the risk must recognise that guaranteeing supply chains are free from these risks is virtually impossible to do. Perhaps one of the most celebrated examples of such honesty is “Tony’s Chocolonely”. They publicly recognise the issue:

Crazy About Chocolate, Serious about People
“We’re Tony’s Chocolonely. We exist to end modern slavery and illegal child labour in the chocolate industry. Our vision is 100% slave-free chocolate. Not just our chocolate, but all chocolate worldwide. The choice is yours. Are you in?

The chocolate sector is much smaller than seafood, but the example illustrates how you can publicly own the risk in a positive way. Setting out the challenge but inviting others to share the burden of the solution, in this case also the consumer.

Such “risk” ownership within the seafood sector would be a tipping point of recognition currently absent. Through a collective ambition to improve the current situation, this would create a positive commitment for change. It’s the only way that a sector-wide transformation can occur.

However, a commonly voiced criticism to such change is not the need for change itself, but that it would be unevenly distributed or would be further driven into even harder to reach supply chains. But owning the problem with an invitation to improve performance for a widely traded international commodity would have widespread and positive implications.

Shrimp farming

Shrimp farming

Admittedly, the footprint would not cover all supply chains, but many more would be indirectly influenced. And this footprint would expand if businesses embraced a “seek and address” approach, where possible, rather than “cut and run”, providing of course that pathways to enable change are available. Investigating and identifying a problem only to avoid becoming involved in the solution is counterproductive to driving change.

Another critique is that market demand for improvement is not sufficient, and it is important to reflect over what timeline change can and should occur. Certainly, the environmental and social challenge in front of us has been decadal in its making. And the most important correlation has been increasing population growth. Equally, solutions will and must take time if they are to be long lasting. Which brings me to the role that certification can play.

The role of certification
The most important consideration is that whilst certification tools can be part of the solution, they are not a panacea for all of the world’s social and environmental woes. When certification schemes were originally conceived as a tool for market influence more than 30 years ago, they were often promoted as the ultimate solution. Experience has shown this to have too narrow an expectation.

Many of the criticisms that were levelled at seafood certification, as the MSC went through its painful early years, were that it was a niche approach with no appeal to markets beyond Germany and the UK, and of no interest to fisheries beyond the magnificent Thames Herring. Some fishing nations maintained a negative national position, openly supporting and encouraging a boycott. Others sought to influence the market through national endorsement programmes.

While some of these sentiments still exist and are clearly still emotive, the fact that market success now brings certified seafood products to over 100 markets and an ever-increasing footprint of certified supplies belittles some of that early criticism. The ASC has followed a similar journey, perhaps with less emotion than MSC’s, but challenges remain for all certification programmes in how they increase the footprint of their certified operations.

Shrimp farming

Shrimp farming

Certification is a valuable tool that provides assurances about the product’s integrity and authenticity. At their foundation, all certification programmes have a standard, but content, coverage and compliance levels differ. Not all certification programmes have equal focus on social and environmental impacts. Credible standard systems also have layers of rules that detail how the standard is applied to ensure consistency of application, the skills required to deliver these rules, and the checks and balances deployed to ensure this is achieved.

This overarching framework is described well by ISEAL within its various codes covering standard setting, assurances, impacts and more (3). Its code-compliant members have demonstrated achievement of this high bar.

Transparency and traceability
There are two other key attributes that leading programmes also have. The first is that there must be in place credible independent, third-party systems to provide the assurances required about the production system and the products they provide to buyers.  These assurances must also cover the supply chains that deliver them. Simply put: “If you do not know where your seafood has come from, then any other claim you wish to make is meaningless”.

Currently, as is the case with the shared platform that ASC and MSC use, this is based around in-person audits. Supply chain assurances must also evolve to provide comprehensive social assurances, a task that ASC is committed to driving. We must also move away from paper-based audit processes, especially for high-risk supply chains. Digital traceability provides many additional advantages, not least the increased transparency and near real time verification. ASC has invested in a GDST (Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability) compatible and interoperable system that has been successfully piloted in Vietnamese farms and downstream supply chains. Future pilots will develop solutions to improve increased visibility for retail and foodservice businesses.

The second key attribute is that transparency must be embedded across the entire certification programme. Without transparency, how do you know that a certification programme is delivering on its promise? How can it be held accountable? With increasing scrutiny around social compliance, transparency plays a vital role in establishing what has been reported and what is known as a result. This is why all ASC documents and audit reports are publicly available through its website, including certification decisions about any suspensions or terminations, along with the reasons why. Draft audit reports are also published before they are finalised, which can provide a check and balance and a degree of accountability towards the audit.

Fishing boats

Fishing boats

Social responsibility is a critical component of our robust standards and ASC takes issues related to human rights extremely seriously. Audits of farm and feed mills must include a trained social auditor and the team must have relevant language skills and experience to conduct worker interviews. The necessary skills required of ASC auditors are significant and leading. Ten per cent of all ASC audits are also unannounced.

Collectively, these requirements provide for robust site investigations, but provide no absolute guarantees. Abuses of human rights are regulated against in almost all countries, but still prevail. Illegal activities are deliberately hidden and can be difficult to identify. Despite these critical challenges, ASC’s certification scheme has an important role to play in driving improvement in social responsibility throughout the farmed seafood industry. Through our impact reporting we can demonstrate that we are making a positive difference, but clearly more can be done.

We recognise that no system is perfect and additional approaches are needed to improve supply chain assurances. While constant improvement is built into ASC’s certification programme, a key and critical future development will be the incorporation of how worker’s voice and external grievance mechanisms are made available to workers and communities, and how certification programmes can verify their use and efficacy. Such mechanisms supplement certification processes and provide opportunities for abuses to be disclosed confidentially by workers and for remedy to be applied.

Shrimp farmer

Shrimp farmer

The seafood sector has been slow in the adoption of such mechanisms, which are better developed for land-based crop and livestock farming. They require resourcing initially to investigate the prevalence of such mechanisms from other sectors in key geographies and to ascertain both their ability to embrace the inclusion of seafood and to understand their current performance. Work is also needed to either support the inclusion of the seafood sector within existing mechanisms or promote their development. The Certification and Ratings Collaboration members are currently seeking funding to undertake the former study as a starting point.

Beyond access to functioning and inclusive grievance mechanisms, both workers and employers need to be aware of human rights and workers must be empowered to speak up for these rights, individually and collectively, to prevent rights abuses. Access to and membership of trade unions, and the capacity and opportunity for collective bargaining are critical mechanisms that ASC requires across its standards. We are continuously working to improve both the Standard and our wider human rights programming.

Finally, we will use all resources available to investigate reported incidents and mitigate and avoid these unacceptable practices happening on ASC certified farms. In line with our ethos of transparency, all related findings will be published on the ASC website.

Chris Ninnes

Chris Ninnes

Chris Ninnes draws on 13 years of experience as the CEO of the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and seven years as deputy CEO and Director of Operations of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). He has been Chair of the ISEAL board since 2018 and Chair of the Certification and Ratings Collaboration’s (CRC) Steering Committee since its inception in 2015. The Collaboration consists of ASC, Fair Trade USA, MSC, SeaFood Watch and Sustainable Fisheries Partnership working together to coordinate tools and increase impact so that more seafood producers move along a clear path toward environmental sustainability and social responsibility.

Notes and links
(1) ASC Human Rights data tool
(2) CRC Guide to Seafood Business Action on Social Responsibility
(3) ISEAL 


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