Biden admin urges WTO crackdown on industry's slave labor

May 27, 2021

The Biden administration asked the World Trade Organization yesterday to curb subsidies for fishing vessels linked to the use of slave labor.

"Forced labor harms the lives and well-being of fishers and workers around the world and it must be eliminated," U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said, adding that the administration will fight the use of slave labor "wherever it occurs."

The focus on the use of slaves to produce seafood has grown in recent years, with the U.S. importing nearly 90% of its seafood.

Last year, the Government Accountability Office criticized U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials for not doing enough to stop the use of slaves and illegal labor practices in the seafood industry (E&E News PM, June 18, 2020).

The Associated Press put a spotlight on the issue in 2016, winning the Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories that exposed the use of slaves in the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. The stories showed how the seafood ended up in U.S. supermarkets. After the 18-month investigation, more than 2,000 slaves were freed.

In the U.S. proposal to the WTO, Tai said that even though the use of forced labor has been widely documented in recent years, it has yet to be addressed by the WTO's Negotiating Group on Rules, which oversees fishing subsidies.

"The WTO has an opportunity to address this issue with a meaningful agreement that increases transparency and accountability in global supply chains," Tai said in a statement. "I urge WTO members to consider the full range of trade tools at our disposal to combat forced labor and other exploitative labor conditions."

The move by Tai represents the latest attempt to tackle illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, commonly known as IUU fishing.

Earlier this month, Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Garret Graves (R-La.) introduced H.R. 3075, the "Illegal Fishing and Forced Labor Prevention Act," a bill that would aim to end slavery and human rights abuses in the international seafood supply chain and fight IUU fishing (E&E Daily, May 13).

When he introduced the bill, Huffman, the chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife, called IUU fishing "an environmental and humanitarian crisis" and said the U.S. should be the global leader in solving it.

The bill would expand NOAA's seafood import monitoring program to cover all species and increase data requirements for monitoring, including the consideration of labor conditions and improved detection of imports deemed to be at risk of IUU fishing.

The bill would also establish new seafood traceability and labeling requirements, increase outreach on seafood safety and fraud issues, and improve both seafood inspections and the federal enforcement of seafood fraud.

In 2019, a report by the U.S. International Trade Commission found nearly 11% of the nation's total seafood imports — worth $24 billion — were the products of illegal or unreported fishing. That report also found that if those IUU imports were eliminated, U.S. fishers would increase their income by nearly $61 million per year.

In her statement, Tai said the Biden administration wants to work with other countries "to promote a fair international trading system that addresses the sustainability of fisheries resources and benefits workers and citizens around the world."

Beth Lowell, deputy vice president for U.S. campaigns for the advocacy group Oceana, said the call to have the WTO address forced labor "is a logical and natural fit to support its mandated efforts to reduce overfishing and IUU fishing."

"By using all tools, including trade mechanisms like this, the U.S. can ensure that our seafood is not the product of IUU fishing or forced labor and other human rights abuses," she said.

By:  Rob Hotakainen
Source: E&E News