UK to raise slavery concerns with Thailand after prawn exposé

UK to raise slavery concerns with Thailand after prawn exposé

Baroness Warsi says ministers intend to discuss use of slaves to produce supermarket prawns after Guardian investigation

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Baroness Warsi

Baroness Warsi admitted the UK’s influence was limited given the political uncertainty in Thailand. Photograph: Lee Thomas/Zuma Press/Corbis

Ministers will seek ways to raise concerns with Thailand about the use of slaves to produce prawns supplied to UK supermarkets following an investigation by the Guardian, Baroness Warsi, a Foreign Office minister, has said.

The senior Conservative said the government expected the Thai authorities to investigate and would seek opportunities to discuss the issue in diplomatic discussions. In the first response from a minister to the Guardian’s investigation, Warsi admitted the UK’s influence was “limited” given the acute political uncertainty in Thailand.

However, she added: “We take the allegations very seriously and will look for opportunities to raise our concerns. At a minimum, we will continue to press for an improvement in labour rights in Thailand through ongoing negotiations towards an EU-Thailand free trade agreement.”

Warsi said the government had been aware of labour rights issues in the Thai fishing industry, but it was unaware of the “very serious” allegations about global supermarkets selling prawns produced through slave labour that were uncovered by the Guardian after a six-month investigation.

She made the comments in a parliamentary question from Labour peer Lord Beecham, who pressed the government on what it intends to do about the abuse of workers in Thailand’s fishing industry and its response to UK companies that purchase those products.

Earlier this month, the Guardian revealed that slavery is integral to the production of prawns available in leading global supermarkets including Tesco, Walmart, Costco and Carrefour. The investigation discovered that slaves are being forced to work in Thailand for no pay for years at a time, under threat of extreme violence, in the production of seafood sold by major US, British and other European retailers.

UK ministers have until now been silent on the subject, but last week in the US Thailand was relegated to the lowest rank in the state department’s Trafficking in Persons report – meaning it is now considered no better than North Korea, Iran or Saudi Arabia in the way it protects workers from abuse.

Asked about the allegations at the time, David Cameron’s official spokesman said it was up to consumers whether they chose to eat prawns that had been produced through the work of slaves.

“Consumer standards and retail standards and social responsibility is often driven by consumers and rightly so,” he said.

The government is introducing fresh penalties to deter modern slavery through a bill unveiled in the Queen’s speech, but this has been criticised for its narrow focus on slavery in the UK and failure to tackle the problem of goods produced through slavery abroad.

In contrast, Labour has called on the government to do more to stop UK supermarkets stocking food produced by abused workers. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, is pushing for new requirements for firms to declare any use of slavery in their supply chains while the government prefers a voluntary approach.

The Home Office has said the government wanted to work collaboratively with businesses to support them to eliminate forced labour in supply chains “in a way which does not place additional burdens on them”.

It has also pointed out that the EU was likely to enact new laws in 2016 forcing companies to report on human rights in their “business relationships”, which could mean firms would have to audit their supply chains for signs of slavery.

“In taking any further action in this area, the government is, therefore, mindful of existing requirements on business and possible future changes to the business reporting regime,” the Home Office said.

“In doing so, we recognise the complexity of supply chain issues, particularly where they involve links with business overseas and where the influence of UK-based companies is diminished. Cross-government action is being taken to bring businesses together to discuss the challenges and opportunities in tackling modern slavery in supply chains.”

Lord Beecham, a shadow justice spokesman in the Lords, said the government should commit to making “strong representations to the Thai government”. He also called on ministers to “press those UK companies purchasing products from tainted sources to cease doing so until the dreadful exploitation of defenceless workers is ended”.

He added: “If the US can take action, so should we.”


Related News:

Slavery in supermarket supply chains can and must be eliminated

The continued enslavement of migrants working in the Thai fishing industry highlights flaws in the monitoring of suppliersRevealed: Asian slave labour producing prawns for supermarkets in US, UKQ&A: how the experts answered your questions
MDG : Thailand seafood industry and slavery : shrimps for sale in supermarket

A Thai customer grabs local shrimp from a shelf to put on a plate at Siam Paragon shopping centre in Bangkok. Photograph: Sakchai Lalit/AP

Human rights abuses remain widespread within the supply chains of some of the world’s largest retailers and brands. Those importing seafood from Thailand must now acknowledge that these abuses include slavery.

The Thai seafood sector employs about 650,000 people, the vast majority of whom are migrant workers from poorer neighbouring countries including Burma, Cambodia and Laos. Many of these workers are trafficked into Thailand and exploited by companies using undocumented, cheap, underpaid workers. The unluckiest, and often the most vulnerable, are sold into slavery to work on Thai fishing boats.

We know this. The Thai government and its agencies know this. The companies doing business with Thailand and selling seafood in Europe, the US and across the world know this.

Thai seafood slavery

Link to video: Thai seafood slavery: four simple things you can do

Steve Trent from the Environmental Justice Foundation suggests four steps to take to help retailers take slavery out of our food supply. As consumers you have the power to change the way your supermarket orders its supply chain – by corresponding with senior executives, you can send a strong message for accountability


It is not only international NGOs, such as the Environmental Justice Foundation, campaigning on this issue. For many years, a range of UN agencies, including the International Labour Organisation (pdf), as well as local Thai and Burmese groups, have recognised human trafficking in the Thai seafood sector as a serious problem.

The US state department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, widely considered the gold standard of global slavery reporting, has also repeatedly highlighted the slavery and abuse of trafficked labourers in Thailand. In 2013, the report found that the country had failed to make sufficient progress in tackling human trafficking for the fourth consecutive year.

Beyond the shocking nature of the human rights infringements uncovered, what particularly concerns me about these recent exposés is that many of the companies involved insist they carry out ethical audits of their supply chains under a range of voluntary schemes.

After more than two decades of such schemes, however, extreme abuse within global supply chains remains prevalent. It seems that many of these schemes either always were, or have become, tick-box exercises aimed at fulfilling corporate social responsibility commitments in the boardroom, with little meaningful analysis of their effectiveness on the ground.

Modern supply chains, particularly when sourcing from overseas, can be highly complex. Certainly, there are logistical challenges to address and there will be costs involved. But supply chain complexity and modest financial investment should not excuse companies from failing in their responsibility to ensure their supply chains are free from slavery and environmentally damaging practices.

Companies have the power and the right to demand accountability and require suppliers to provide information on where products come from, how they are produced, and how compliance with labour and environmental standards is monitored. Quite simply, if a company is not able to satisfy itself that human rights abuses don’t exist within a particular supply chain, it should not be sourcing those products.

In reality, it’s an excuse to argue that seafood supply chains are too complicated to unravel. It is possible to take steps to achieve the levels of transparency, traceability and auditing necessary to eliminate illegal, criminal and outright unethical operators.

Monitoring and oversight of supply chains can be implemented without imposing significantly higher costs on customers or creating unnecessary logistical burdens.

More than anything, it is about developing the systems to implement regular checks on suppliers and adopting a scrupulous approach to inspections and audits. This includes ensuring confidential interviews are carried out with workers, and preventing situations in which companies are able to cover up abuses as soon as they know an inspection is imminent. The focus should be on the sectors and products where the highest risks exist, and this information is readily available. The TIP report offers a good starting point for establishing which products could be linked to slavery and human rights abuses

Superr market slave trail

Link to video: Globalised slavery: how big supermarkets are selling prawns in supply chain fed by slave labour

A six-month Guardian multimedia investigation has, for the first time, tracked how some of the world’s big-supermakets, Tesco, Aldi, Walmart and Morrisons, are using suppliers relying on slave labour to put cheap prawns on their shelves. Slavery is back and here’s the proof. Narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch

Warning: some may find elements of this film distressing.

More on this story: trafficked into slavery on Thai trawlers


The issue essentially boils down to organisational will. If this were a consumer safety issue, you can be sure that the necessary action would be taken quickly and efficiently; I challenge anyone in the retail markets in Europe or the US to deny this fact. After all, giving your customers food poisoning is one of the fastest routes to ruining a brand, losing market share and, ultimately, commercial failure. So do we just accept that we can’t do the same to eradicate slavery in our Thai seafood supply? Or do we work together to overcome the obstacles preventing the protection of human rights for those suffering for our food?

It is time for major retailers, brands, importers and suppliers to take determined, decisive action to stop slavery. There are no reasonable arguments left for ad-hoc and largely ineffectual initiatives, for prevarication in the name of dialogue or further study. We are talking about slaves producing food that is on our tables. Business as usual can no longer be an option for any chief executive, nor for shareholders and investors who value their brand, their market share and their profits.



2 Comments to “UK to raise slavery concerns with Thailand after prawn exposé”

  1. Thu., Feb. 13, 2014
    H&K Promotes Thailand’s Human Rights Push
    By Kevin McCauley


    Holland & Knight signed on for an eight-month campaign to promote Thailand’s efforts to combat human trafficking and the use of child and forced labor.

    It works on behalf of the office of commercial affairs at Thailand’s embassy in Washington. The agreement, which went into effect on Jan. 27, is worth $408K.

    H&K’s government relations’ push focuses on the White House, Congress and the Depts. of Defense, State and Labor.

    The agreement “may include relevant outreach to news outlets, academia and other individuals in the U.S.”

    H&K’s mission is to “convey an accurate and complete picture” of Thailand’s track record in the human rights arena.

    Rich Gold, practice group leader of H&K’s public policy/regulations unit, signed the Thailand contract.

    He’s served as aide to former Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen and ex-EPA administrator Carol Browner.

    On Jan. 21, Thailand declared a two-month state of emergency for Bangkok and neighboring provinces due to anti-government protests.

  2. In January this year the Thai embassy in Washington signed a $400,000-plus deal with leading US law firm Holland & Knight. The money was for lobbying to persuade the White House, Congress and US departments of state and defence that Thailand is a country that fights human trafficking and forced labour.

    It seems not to have been money well spent. On Friday Thailand was downgraded to the lowest ranking in the state department’s annual report on Trafficking in Persons. The money invested in lobbying therefore represents both a defeat and a serious embarrassment for the Thai authorities.

    In truth though, it has looked in recent weeks like the Thais were resigned to this US condemnation. Earlier this month, Thailand was the only government to vote against ratifying a new treaty to stop forced labour drawn up by the UN’s International Labour Organisation.

    A couple of days later days the law firm emailed a clarification on behalf of the Thai embassy – Thailand had voted against because it was not sure it could implement the treaty, but it would adopt it anyway.

    Bangkok’s failure to get to grips with the gross exploitation of workers was laid bare in the recent Guardian investigation which found that slaves are being used on Thai fishing boats that serve the global prawn industry. Some of the revelations – summary executions, 20-hour days with no pay, men traded among boat owners like animals for a few hundred pounds – beggared belief. If US minds were not already made up, this was further convincing evidence in favour of a downgrade.

    The downgrading of countries that are American allies is always a subject of debate, however, according to former US anti-trafficking ambassador Mark Lagon.

    Behind the scenes US embassies in the countries’ and regional bureaus will have been arguing that the US has “other equities than human rights” in countries such as Thailand and Qatar, he said. Whether the US can afford to be candid about governments in turmoil and facing anti-coup demonstrations, such as Bangkok’s, will also have been a factor.

    “Clearly there will have been intense debate about whether Thailand or Qatar deserve a downgrade and questions around the valuable relationship the US has with its strategic partners,” Lagon said.

    With such partners, economic sanctions that could be triggered by a tier 3 ranking are often waived, so that the impact comes instead from the attached moral stigma – particularly for a country like Thailand that openly promotes itself as a relaxed tourist destination.

    The downgrade will be seen as a “confirmation of loss of face” for the Thai government, says migrant rights expert Andy Hall, but it is important to note that this “face [was] lost a while ago now”.

    “A tier 3 status for Thailand is called for as acknowledgement of the severity of the human trafficking situation in Thailand and failure of successive administrations to address the breakdown in rule of law and migration policy that have led to this poor situation,” he says.

    The Thai government has issued numerous statements in the last week proclaiming its expectation for an upgrade, claiming that it has “tackled the human trafficking problem” in Thailand. As proof, it points to the creation of government task forces and higher prosecution and conviction rates than last year.

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