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23 Mär 2021

Tuna companies fail to tackle modern slavery in Pacific

Fishing boats in the port of Tamsui, Taipei.

The canned tuna industry is rife with allegations of modern slavery in its Pacific supply chains, with little protection for workers from forced labour. A new report from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) surveyed 35 canned tuna brands and supermarkets – representing over 80 of the world’s largest canned tuna brands – and found paper promises to tackle modern slavery and protect human rights.

As the COVID-19 pandemic brought a sharp increase in demand for canned tuna, it also heightened the risk for workers of experiencing modern slavery. Whilst nearly half of companies surveyed recognised these exacerbated modern slavery risks, only a quarter had taken any action in response.

The human rights organisation also spoke to 20 different groups and individual fishers about their experiences, revealing some alarming testimonies. Forced labour, human trafficking and unsanitary working conditions onboard fishing vessels are widespread. There is a clear absence of safeguarding and a lack of action to address underlying drivers of abuse.

Phil Bloomer, Executive Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “Too many Pacific tuna fishermen that put food on our tables face abuse and confinement every day. Put simply, the brands who put the cans on their shelves are failing to provide adequate duty of care to these workers who furnish their products.

“This is not inevitable. A handful of companies – Tesco, Thai Union and Woolworths (Australia) – have shown it is both commercially viable and a moral imperative to emancipate workers caught in modern slavery. Other brands must catch up and take urgent action to protect workers. Investors should also note that the laggards not only run major reputation risk, but also imminent legal risk as new laws in 2021 will leave their negligence exposed to legal challenge.

“Our findings are especially concerning as, when we first approached these brands two years ago, many had made paper promises to improve their approach to human rights. Yet, two years on, the laggard companies have done next to nothing.”

Amy Sinclair, Regional Representative for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, said: “Alarmingly, as international borders have closed to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, modern slavery risks have heightened, with fishers trapped at sea for longer periods than ever before – unable to escape the gruelling conditions in which they find themselves. While half the companies acknowledged the increased risks to fishers the pandemic has introduced, only a quarter have taken mitigating action.

“Part of the problem is that most companies are not doing enough to listen to the voices of fishers in their supply chains, nor are they effectively engaging with workers and their representatives to uncover risks.

“The findings from this report must act as a wake-up call. The leading cluster of companies identified by our research demonstrate what is already possible and profitable. Companies urgently need to implement comprehensive human rights due diligence, with a specific focus on eliminating modern slavery risks throughout their supply chains.”


Note to editors

BHRRC first surveyed 35 canned tuna brands and supermarkets – representing over 80 of the world’s largest canned tuna brands – two years ago. Our latest company survey findings expose glacial progress on actions that matter the most to workers trapped in modern slavery.

➡️ Find out more

📕 Read the full report here [.PDF]

About the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre is an international NGO that tracks the human rights impacts (positive and negative) of more than 10,000 companies across nearly 200 countries. We seek responses from companies when concerns are raised by civil society.

Media contact: Priyanka Mogul (London-based), Media Officer, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, +44 (0) 7880 956239, [email protected]

Amy Sinclair (Sydney-based), Regional Representative for Australia, New Zealand and Pacific, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, +61 (0) 405 317 023, [email protected]