Tuna slaves? A serious problem, be careful what we buy


‘Tuna slaves,’ sounds like a joke. One is reminded of the dietary obsessions of anorexics, orthorexics, and gym-goers who live off cans of plain tuna. To stock up on protein and nothing more. But tuna slaves are anything but, and it is good to open our eyes. Be careful what we buy.

Slavery, including child slavery , is unfortunately still widespread in some food supply chains. In oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia, and in cocoa plantations in West Africa. But also in the fishing and processing of tuna and canned fish, as we have already reported.

Tuna slaves, the ILO’s denunciation

The latest denunciation comes from the ILO, the UN agency for the protection of workers’ rights. Indeed, the‘International Labor Office‘ has denounced Thailand, (1) for repeated violations of the ILO Convention against Forced Labor. (2) Omitting, among other things, the necessary checks on human trafficking. Of their own citizens, ‘internal migrants,’ as well as migrants from poorer neighboring countries such as Laos, Burma to Cambodia. (3) With no control over the working conditions-often slave-like-of workers in fishing boats, factory ships and factories working on‘seafood. (4)

‘Every year, a significant number of migrant workers and Thai citizens fall into the trap of human trafficking for forced labor on Thai fishing vessels. Once on the boats, fishermen face deplorable conditions, including non-payment of wages, 20-hour work days, debt bondage, physical abuse, and murder’ (5)

The ILO report describes the operations of real criminal organizations entrenched in the fish canning supply chain. With‘widespread corruption of government officials‘ providing‘protection and assistance‘ to criminals used to‘torture and kill migrant workers attempting to flee, as a warning to others.’ (6) In addition to shortages of food, drinking water, medicine, decent housing, and safe sailing conditions.

Greenpeace’s investigation.

Greenpeace South-East Asia
in turn conducted a lengthy survey of the Thai fish supply chain in 2016, following one conducted the previous year by AP(Associated Press). The report‘Turn the Tide‘ (7) shows how in the world’s fourth largest seafood exporting country (US$6.5 billion in 2015) slavery and worker abuse are still in vogue. (8) As well as impermissible fishing practices-‘Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing‘-in others’ territorial waters, such as in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. That is, in marine reserves such as the‘Sava de Malha Bank,’ the largest shoal on the planet (in the Indian Ocean).

Stories of the other world, one would say. Except that it is precisely from there that the contents of most of the packages of tuna and other canned fish, including surimi and cat food (9) on our shelves come. So, outrage is not enough, and petitions still get too little attention. Labels in turn, often delude us with certification marks that do not consider such aspects. Or even reflect mere‘greenwashing‘ operations.

Here’s how ConsumAtors can free tuna slaves

It is time for consumAtors to become better informed, to learn how to distinguish ‘good’ tuna and canned fish from others. You have to make sustainable purchasing choices for real. But how?

– First, it is useful to give preference to fish preserves whose production has taken place entirely in Italy. (10) In compliance with regulations to protect workers. Starting with whole fish, rather than frozen semi-processed(loins) on the production of which there are no suitable guarantees on fishing places and methods, (11) working conditions, product safety,

– second, preference should be given to products that are subject to certifications that can effectively attest to respect for both the marine ecosystem and workers. ‘Greenwashing‘ is widespread, as various symbols on packaging often refer to individual positive elements (12), rather than supporting initiatives untethered from the production chain. (13)

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in turn ‘stinks’. (14) Others even self-certify, glossing over dark areas. (15). To date, the only certification that has escaped substantial criticism is that of‘Friends of the Sea.’ (16) Waiting for some order…

Tuna slaves? No thanks, not anymore.


(1) The ILO report 20.3.17, at http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_549113.pdf

(2)‘Forced Labour Convention,’ 1930

(3)‘The intermediaries (of labor, ed.) have been known to promise other types of ground work to convince migrants to make the trip to Thailand. Some fishermen reported that they did not know about their employment on fishing vessels until the broker delivered them to a fishing pier‘ (ILO report, paragraph 15)

(4) Valuable reports are also offered by Stefano Liberti, in his latest book ‘The Lords of Food. And from Alain de Botton, in the book ‘Working Pleases’ http://www.ilfattoalimentare.it/lavorare-piace-alain-de-botton.html

(5) ILO Report, para. 10

(6) More than 65 percent of workers have been physically abused, several have witnessed suicide and murder (ILO, paragraphs 21, 67). Systematic misappropriation of identity documents, isolation on board for long periods on the high seas, lack of pay are also reported (paras. 19-20, 65-66)

(7) The Greenpeace report, at http://m.greenpeace.org/seasia/PageFiles/745330/Turn-The-Tide.pdf

(8) Touching testimonies were captured by the Environmental Justice Foundation, in the documentary at http://ejfoundation.org/video/thailands-seafood-slaves. See also Greenpeace’s short films, at http://www.greenpeace.org/italy/it/News1/Il-lato-oscuro-dellindustria-del-tonno/

(9) Greenpeace also found numerous Nestlé Purina‘pet food‘ references from Thailand i.e. made by ‘Thai Union Manufacturing Co. Ltd.’ (see report referred to in footnote 7, page 68) on the shelves of Italian retail stores (Auchan, Esselunga, Coop Italia). Several questions have been raised about the latter group, which owns the Mareblu and John West brands, among many others, regarding sustainability and traceability of raw materials

(10) According to the information gathered, the only industry that guarantees processing in Italy of the entire production from whole fish is Asdomar. Callipo, Castiglione-Auriga, and Sardanelli follow, with varying shares of production from whole. Always happy to gather useful news to better inform consumers

(11) The most serious threat to the marine ecosystem isFish Aggregating Devices (FADs), which attract hundreds of fish species that are often protected, endangered, and otherwise unrelated to the specific fishing targets

(12) Like dolphin conservation, in the US‘Dolphin Safe‘ certification.

(13) This is the case with Mareblu(Thai Union), which contributes to a couple of Legambiente initiatives in the Mediterranean Sea. Without any guarantee on the socio-environmental sustainability of its products. And indeed, in the opposite direction

(14) So much so that WWF, one of the founding members, recently expressed serious doubts about MSC’s governance. See https://www.thetime s.co.uk/article/fishings-blue-tick-benchmark-tainted-by-conflict-of-interest-3qrsr5w0k

(15) ‘Self-referrals’ include Rio Mare, Maruzzella, with its principles of ‘Sustainable Fishing’

(16) http://www.friendofthesea.org/