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26 Oct 2023

China: USA, Canadian & European brands respond to risk of Uyghur forced labour & migrant worker abuse in seafood supply chains by cutting ties; incl. cos. responses

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A deckhand named Rahman Finando got up the nerve to ask whether he could go home. The captain said no. A few days later, another deckhand, Mangihut Mejawati, found a group of Chinese officers and deckhands beating Finando, to punish him for asking to leave.
Ian Urbina, The Crimes Behind the Seafood You Eat (New Yorker)

In October 2023, a collaboration between the New Yorker and the Outlaw Ocean project revealed evidence of human rights abuse within the Chinese seafood industry, including the use of Uyghur forced labour in Chinese seafood processing companies, and the exploitation of Indonesian migrant workers on Chinese deep-sea fishing vessels.

The investigation draws on insights from company newsletters, local news reports, trade data, and satellite imagery, including analysis of videos on Douyin. Investigators were hired to visit some of the seafood processing plants. At least ten large seafood companies in China have allegedly used over 1000 Uyghur workers since 2018, which in turn have shipped 47,000 tons of seafood to the USA. This seafood has been purchased by major USA and Canadian importers, including High Liner Foods, who in turn sent their products to supermarkets across the USA, including to Walmart, Costco, Kroger, and Albertsons, and to the food service giant Sysco. Importers linked to Uyghur labour also supplied to Nomad Foods, the largest fish-processing factory in the world, which supplies to supermarkets across Europe, including Carrefour, Tesco, and Edeka. Journalists also asked every Chinese headquartered company to respond to the allegations; comments are included in the New Yorker articles.

A state-led labour transfer programme is documented that forcibly sends Uyghurs to several industries across China, including the seafood processing sector. Investigators found severe human rights violations of Uyghur workers in seafood plants, including surveillance, forced movement to re-education camps for misdemeanours, subjugation to ‘patriotic education’, torture, and long working hours. Officials, including representatives of companies who co-ordinate labour transfers, recruit Uyghur people from their homes in Xinjiang. Those who resist can be detained.

On Chinese fishing vessels, journalists documented severe labour violations impacting mostly Indonesian migrants; seafood caught on these vessels is allegedly consumed in the USA. Reported abuse includes violence and threatening behaviour towards workers; criminal neglect with workers becoming malnourished without adequate food and captains refusing or delaying bringing sick workers ashore for treatment. Isolation and restrictions to freedom of movement are rife with workers requesting to go home being violently punished, describing being held on boats against their will and being refused permission to call home. Wage theft and denial of sick leave were common with workers describing having pay docked if they take sick leave, and working hours were extremely long. Additionally, unscrupulous recruitment agencies withheld workers passports and made false promises of lucrative contracts while also charging extortionate fees. Debt bondage was also reported.

Correspondence between Outlaw Ocean Project and various companies linked to their investigations can be read in full here. A full list of ensuing company actions or government citations of the report since its publication is being maintained by the Project here. The investigation has prompted several companies to take actions to remove the risk of Uyghur forced labour from their supply chains, including:

  • Albertsons halted purchasing certain products from High Liner;
  • Pacific American Fishing Co. terminated its relationship with two plants identified in the report as using forced labour;
  • High Liner said it also it has ended its business with a plant identified in the report;
  • Lund’s Fisheries has ceased its business relationship with a plant identified in the report;

The Resource Centre invited all seafood importers and supermarkets headquartered in the USA, Canada or Europe to respond to the allegations made by the investigation, including to provide information on due diligence carried out on suppliers in their seafood supply chains, including any instances of uncovered abuse consistent with the report’s findings, as well as how the company responded to these instances. Responses from Albertsons, Carrefour, Edeka, High Liner Foods, Kroger, Lund's Fisheries, Nomad Foods, Tesco and Walmart can be read below; Costco, H Mart, Performance Food Group and Sysco did not respond.

The Resource Centre also received a statement from Seafish which can be read in full below, alongside statements by Human Rights at Sea and Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

Company Responses

Kroger View Response
Albertsons View Response
Edeka Group View Response
Lund's Fisheries View Response
High Liner Foods View Response
Nomad Foods Europe Limited View Response
Walmart View Response

No Response

H Mart (part of the Hanahreum Group)

No Response

Carrefour View Response

No Response

Performance Food Group

No Response