The NGO Tuna Forum has recently published guidance on workers’ rights for companies engaged in the tuna industry.
Tuna are fished in more than 70 countries and are among the world’s most popular fish and therefore among the most commercially valuable. Yet, the fishers in this multi-billion-pound industry still encounter some of the worst forms of human and labour abuses experienced in the sector.
Although not part of the drafting or research stage, after reviewing the initial guidance in January 2023, Human Rights at Sea voiced its concerns over the drafting and tone of the document and ultimately triggered key amendments.
Today, HRAS is pleased to see its various recommendations including, but not limited to, a primary focus on established International Human Rights Law, combating a lack of industry transparency through public incident reporting, and the need for an enforcement and deterrent effect now covered in the text.
The NGO Tuna Forum brings together NGOs, other individuals, and organisations that work on global tuna sustainability issues, predominantly with a conservation focus.
The guidance on workers’ rights for companies engaged in the tuna industry is designed to “enhance and improve alignment” in a sector where human rights abuses, including human trafficking, forced labour and death at sea, are rife but, sadly, not new.
NGO Tuna Forum emphasises that its guidance “should not be considered comprehensive.” and add that it is “intended to unambiguously state the minimum actions that all companies involved in tuna fishing must take now to identify, prevent, mitigate, and remediate labor rights abuses in their supply chains.”
International Law focus
Advice expressed by HRAS was the inclusion of increased clarity around the protection of fundamental human rights and labour rights and the explicit listing of applicable human rights from across all relevant International Conventions and related legal instruments, reflecting those highlighted within the Geneva Declaration on Human Rights at Sea (GDHRAS).
The explicit inclusion of the reference to the International Bill of Human Rights and the constituent UN Human Rights treaties, followed by a focus on emerging soft-law guidance around business and human rights, sets the right tone around the correct hierarchy of referencing.
The GDHRAS was launched in Geneva on 1 March 2021 as a response to the ongoing systematic abuse of human rights at sea globally and brings together existing international law into one document; offering practical guidance on how to ensure that human rights abuses at sea are detected, remedied, and ultimately ended.
An Industry in the Spotlight
Between November 2018 and January 2019, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) surveyed 35 canned tuna companies and supermarkets, representing 80 of the world’s largest retail canned tuna brands, on their approach to human rights in Pacific tuna fishing operations and supply chains. 20 of the 35 companies responded.
It issued “Out of Sight: Modern Slavery in Pacific Supply Chains of Canned Tuna – A Survey and Analysis of Company Action” in 2019, highlighting in detail the continuing growing body of evidence of slavery in the Pacific Tuna supply chain, including case study work from Human Rights at Sea exposing past abuses in Fiji through a family perspective on a deceased Fijian crew member who was subjected to alleged egregious human rights abuse whilst working on a Taiwanese flagged fishing vessel.
In 2021, Human Rights at Sea participated and contributed to BHRRC’s updated briefing “All at sea: An evaluation of company efforts to address modern slavery in Pacific supply chains of canned tuna”.
Crucially, BHRRC’s evaluation found that two years after its 2019 report, companies were still not doing enough to address ongoing abuses and most continued to fail to take robust decisive action and policy over practice continued to prevail.
The InfoFish World Tuna Conference 2022 partially focused on social accountability, and there was wide recognition that retailers and consumers demand more accountability from the fisheries sector. It concluded that existing certifications and standards do not go far enough. As Iain Pollard from Key Traceability said, “Just being MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified is not enough”.
The MSC featured in Human Rights at Sea’s report “Fisheries Observer Deaths at Sea, Human Rights & The Role and Responsibilities of Fisheries Organisations.”
The report, which was published in 2020, focuses on the tragic yet unexplained death of Eritara Aati Kaierua who was found dead in a cabin on the FV Win Far No 636, a Taiwanese-flagged fishing vessel catching tuna from the then MSC-certified PNA skipjack and yellowfin free school tuna fishery in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.
An initial pathologist’s report said Eritara had died of “severe traumatic brain injuries” while police in his home on the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, where his body was brought, opened a murder investigation, the results of which have never been publicly concluded.
Too Slow to Change
Today, the wider global fisheries industry still lacks adequate monitoring and enforcement of human and labour rights protections. There is still substantial evidence of widespread, deliberate and often systematic abuse of human rights at sea.
For example, migrant fishers, are often held in slavery conditions onboard distant water fleets and child labour is still present throughout the supply chains globally.
Today, and more so than ever before, consumers want to know that the seafood they purchase and consume is not harming the environment and that the workers involved in the supply chain are not abused and or denied their fundamental human and labour rights protections.
In direct response to this demand, and with an ambition to see certification standards rapidly improve their focus on human sustainability, not just environmental sustainability, Human Rights at Sea published “Does it Do What it Says on the Tin? Fisheries and Aquaculture Certification Standards and Ratings Ecosystem Review v1.1” in March 2023.
Hope for a Better Future for Tuna Fishers
Human Rights at Sea welcomes NGO Tuna Forums revised guidance which now better focuses on workers’ rights from both a human and labour rights perspective and is pleased to see that human sustainability is being more widely discussed.
However, Human Rights at Sea maintains that transparency, accountability and effective remediation for affected workers, alongside workers’ voices, must be embedded in all seafood standards if they are to continue to operate with any credibility.
Despite the risks and challenges, the increase in evidence of what is happening has shed light on the scale of human rights abuses at sea, and the freedom for civil society organisations to monitor, investigate and advocate is essential for attaining restorative and just waters.
The support and protection of such groups must persist in being able to observe the greatest threats to humans taking place on the world’s most unregulated frontier.
Human Rights at Sea will continue to deliver critical advocacy, guidance and reporting on human rights abuses at sea whilst operating as necessary watchdogs and human rights defenders.