Why Changing the Tuna Industry Means Stopping Labor Abuse

by Jackie Dragon

October 16, 2015

The same unbridled economic interests that are driving destruction in our oceans are also allowing horrific labor practices and human rights abuses of workers in the seafood industry.

Fishermen Sleep Onboard a Taiwanese Longliner in Samoa

Fishermen sleep in cramped quarters on a Taiwanese longliner in Samoa. Fishermen on tuna vessels often work long days for little or no pay, and some companies have even been linked to human trafficking.

© Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

Update November 5, 2015: Recognizing the critical overlap between environmental protection and workers’ rights, two powerful labor rights federations have joined Greenpeace’s call to reform the tuna industry. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) each represent roughly 12 million workers.

They join the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in calling for an end to destructive fishing and labor exploitation in Thai Union Group’s supply chain.

This week, powerful allies joined forces to call on the world’s largest producer of canned tuna — Thai Union Group — and its largest U.S. brand — Chicken of the Sea — to eradicate destructive fishing practices and forced labor from their supply chains.

Three U.S. unions have released a statement of solidarity with Greenpeace’s campaign to reform the tuna industry. Household names in the United States synonymous with worker rights, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represent nearly 5 million workers collectively.

In a press release, Marc Perrone, international president of the UFCW, said, “We join with Greenpeace and other allies calling on Thai Union to end destructive fishing while respecting the labor and human rights of all those employed within its supply chain, and we shall stand with Greenpeace and all those workers affected until the company’s practices have been rectified.”

Thai Union is considered a keystone company for its disproportionately large impact on marine ecosystems, and has also been linked to the darkest sides of the seafood industry. Reports in the New York Times, the Guardian and the Associated Press have exposed a dark and shameful story of labor abuse at sea that can be traced all the way to the canned tuna on U.S. supermarket shelves.

Exploited Workers, Empty Oceans

Investigations have revealed fishing vessels crewed by victims of human trafficking. Often poor migrant workers desperate for work, they find themselves duped and effectively imprisoned on rusty fishing vessels for up to three years without returning to land. Fishermen are forced to work for up to 22 hours a day in deplorable conditions. Salaries promised do not materialize; some are beaten or fined for slowing down or falling asleep, or even killed for refusing to work. A U.N. study suggests that up to 60 percent of human trafficking victims have witnessed a murder by boat captains.

Captains with no regard for human and labor rights are also, unsurprisingly, those using destructive industrial practices that are emptying our oceans, often in blatant breach of environmental laws. They indiscriminately kill and waste tons of marine life, well beyond the tuna they will send to market. By staying out at sea for months to years, transferring catches, supplies and even crews across shadowy barges far from port inspectors’ views, they can hide both illegal fishing and labor abuse.

Closing the False Divide Between Social and Environmental Justice

The solidarity statement signed by these unions recognizes the deep ties between social justice and environmental issues, and acknowledges that the same solutions needed to safeguard ocean resources can also protect workers. They refuse to allow corporate interests driven by short-term profits to continue to divide the labor and environmental movements by painting issues like this disingenuously as tradeoff between jobs and protecting the planet.

Instead, the unions are standing with Greenpeace, calling for Thai Union to: clean up its supply chains, become fully transparent, ensure workers the freedom of association, and the right to join unions, require improved fishing practices, and stop relying on overfishing and exploited labor to make short term profits.

Add your voice to this important call. Tell Chicken of the Sea that it must do better for our oceans.

Not Just Tuna

Graphic by Greenpeace.

Jackie Dragon

By Jackie Dragon

Jackie Dragon formerly served as a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace USA. Jackie has been campaigning to protect important places in the ocean since 2008. Her current focus is on the Bering Sea, where she fights to conserve the largest submarine canyons in the world from destructive industrial fishing practices.

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.