Tainted global supply chains

Fish caught by bonded labourers can turn up as calamari at fine restaurants, in sushi rolls


Syed Mohammad Ali December 31, 2015

The modern global economy is increasingly interconnected through global political and financial structures, which have been able to increase global productivity manifold. However, these emergent structures of production have worsened economic disparities and done little for half the world’s population, which is still struggling to survive on less than $2 a day. Creating meaningful economic change for the global poor requires creating fairer opportunities for many more people than is taking place at present. Powerful multinational corporations that operate across numerous countries and make giddying amounts of profits, make fanciful claims that labour exploitation has no place in their production or sourcing processes. However, despite their rhetorical assertions, there are many glaring chinks in the supply chains of such entities.

Consider, for instance, recent Associated Press reports of impoverished migrant workers from countries like Cambodia and Myanmar trapped in debt bondage on fishing vessels and at ports, mills and seafood farms in Thailand, which in turn supply fish to giant food sellers, such as Walmart, Sysco and Kroger. Slave-caught fish can turn up as calamari at fine restaurants, in sushi rolls, as frozen fish, or even canned food sold under major store brands around the world. A leading multinational food company was compelled to launch an investigation last year, after reports of brutal and largely unregulated working conditions found in supply chains of seafood pet foods being sold by it.

Several multinational companies have promised to take steps to prevent exploitation in their seafood supply chains. The abovementioned food company has said that it would impose new requirements on all potential suppliers to ensure that the fish purchased by it has not been caught by people subjected to human rights abuses. However, exploitation of poor workers is not confined to the seafood sector alone.

According to investigations earlier this year by The Guardian, ‘blood bricks’ made by bonded labourers and children have been used in major construction projects in Nepal. It was surprising that bricks procured from exploitative manufacturers also found their way into construction at the Tribhuvan international airport funded by the Asian Development Bank and a World Food Programme project funded with $3.2 million of UK aid money. While the contractors using ‘blood bricks’ have since been fired, it is disturbing to note that such blatant worker rights infringements are common even in projects funded by international development agencies, which explicitly aim to ensure that any products or services used by them conform to high environmental and ethical production standards.

If major international donor agencies cannot ensure that the products they purchase are free from exploitation, doing so for ordinary consumers is even more difficult. Moreover, products that boast of using ‘fair trade’ practices, for instance, are much more expensive, even in the West, and are largely not available in developing countries. Only those with surplus money can purchase them. Consumers, therefore, anywhere in the world, cannot hold powerful corporations to account.

The ultimate responsibility of assuring the integrity of supply chains, therefore, must be placed on the producers themselves. To ensure such integrity, rigorous due diligence and ongoing project monitoring and supplier checks are needed to create procurement policies that ensure products they purchase are free from exploitative forms of labour practices, such as child and bonded labour. Unless international frameworks are put in place that can hold multinational companies to account for any evidence of exploitation within their supply chains, the menace of brutal exploitation of workers within increasingly dispersed global supply chains cannot be addressed.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 1st, 2016.

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