Parent Company Of Am. Samoa Cannery A Human Rights Abuser

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Thai Union connected to forced labor U.S. congress hears

By Fili Sagapolutele

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, April 23, 2015) – The U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Human rights and Health, heard yesterday testimony on modern-day slavery and human rights abuses that have occurred in Thailand’s seafood industry and other parts of the world.

Among the witnesses who testified at yesterday’s Congressional hearing was Mark P. Lagon, president of Freedom House non-profit group. Lagon is the former U.S. State Department ambassador-at-large for Trafficking in Persons.

"The Thai fishing industry is rife with forced labor, both on the high seas and within seafood processing and packing plants," says a written copy of his testimony available on the committee’s website.

Lagon said, "The problem is so egregious" that the U.S. Labor Department has officially highlighted Thai seafood as a tainted commodity. However, he says it remains to be seen whether the United States government will impose the sanctions it is authorized to deploy, which would bar Thai seafood from U.S. markets due to forced labor.

The hearing comes on the heels of an Associated Press investigation, which last month reported that hundreds of fishermen were forced to work as slaves in the Thailand seafood industry, and were regularly abused and held in inhumane conditions.

According to the AP investigation, Thai Union — which owns the Chicken of the Sea cannery and is awaiting federal regulatory approval to acquire Bumble Bee Seafood — was directly connected to a supplier accused of human rights abuses and slavery at sea.

Based in Thailand, Thai Union is the largest player in the American canned tuna market, says ocean advocate Greenpeace, adding that the AP story reinforced serious concerns over supply chains for the biggest tuna companies in the U.S.

During its investigation, the AP said it found that the U.S. has enforced a law banning the import of goods made with forced labor just 39 times in 85 years because of a significant loophole: slave-caught seafood and other items must be allowed in if consumer demand cannot be met without them.

The AP reports yesterday that the U.S. Senate and U.S. House committees passed amendments this week to close that loophole. (Final language of the amendments needs to be passed by both the Senate and House.)

Testimony, during the House subcommittee hearing, from Matthew Smith who is executive director of non-profit group Fortify Rights, also cited the AP investigative story on Thailand’s human trafficking involving its fishing industry.

"In some cases Rohingya men [from Myanmar] who are unable to raise the necessary money to secure passage to Malaya are sold to Thai-operated fishing vessels" where they often spend years at a time at sea "working as fishing slaves," according to a copy of his written testimony in congressional records.

Greenpeace Oceans Campaign director, John Hocevar responded to House subcommittee testimony, saying in a statement that the industry needs to clean up its practices now, "and that starts with the largest seafood company in Thailand: Thai Union."

"When American consumers buy Chicken of the Sea — and soon Bumble Bee canned tuna — they should know they are ultimately purchasing from a company that is connected to slave labor and a country that faces potential sanctions for destroying the ocean," Hocevar said in a national media statement, which was also forwarded to Samoa News.

"Thai Union can’t wait for the government to act — it must step up as an industry leader and work to eliminate slave labor and human rights abuses from its entire supply chain. This is not an issue to be taken lightly, and it’s time for action," he said.

PRIOR ABUSE ALLEGATIONS

Allegations of human rights abuses and forced labor in Thailand’s fishery industry surfaced two years ago during a battle of words carried out in both the local and Washington D.C. media, between former Congressman Faleomavaega Eni and Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee over the provisions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s "Buy America" domestic tuna product for the federally funded school lunch program.

Faleomavaega had argued that only StarKist Inc., was in compliance — not Bumble Bee or Chicken of the Sea — the two canneries that he claimed "outsource the cleaning of their tuna to low-wage countries like Thailand, where human rights abuses, including forced labor, debt bondage, trafficking in labor and child labor have been found to be endemic" in their fish processing industry.

‘THE LOCAL MARRIAGE PROPOSAL"

An American Samoa Government report, following last month’s South Pacific Tuna Treaty re-negotiation session in New Zealand, has described Bumble Bee Seafood reaching out to locally based U.S. longliners as a "marriage proposal".

Late last month, Bumble Bee officials paid a courtesy visit to local longliner owners and representatives about their company’s future operations in Samoa, giving the fishing fleet an optional place to deliver their catch. That gathering was closed to the public, but at least two ASG officials tried to attend; however, they were told the meeting was for longliners — representatives and owners — only.

The Bumble Bee officials even congratulated the boat owners on the recent decision by the Western Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Council to allow longliners to fish seaward of 12 nautical miles in the Large Vessel Protect Areas (LVPA) waters around the territory.

More than a week ago, the American Samoa’s delegation to the Treaty re-negotiation issued a report about the New Zealand session. The report, submitted to the governor, noted that the impact of the Council’s decision is unknown at this time.

According to the delegation's report, American Samoa’s contention that it has authority over the 50-mile zone surrounding territorial waters was countered head-on by the recent Council ruling that reduced the 50-mile zone to 12 miles, diminishing the area reserved for local alia fishermen.

"It is unknown how far reaching this will impact the [local] fishery and local capacity building — in the face of Bumble Bee’s recent ‘marriage proposal’ to the US longliners based in the territory — or whether American Samoa has recourse to overcome the Council’s decision and regain the 50 mile zone for American Samoa’s alia fishery," the local delegation says.

"However, it is clear that American Samoa needs to assist local village fishermen acquire Super Alias that can fish within the 50 mile zone, or acquire long liners," the report says.

Attorney General Talauega Eleasalo Ale and local Commerce Department director Keniseli Lafaele attended the Treaty session.

The Council’s decision on the LVPA is subject to final approval of the U.S. Commerce Secretary, and it’s unclear as to when it will be made.

Thailand-based Thai Union’s acquisition of Bumble Bee Seafood "will probably put the Samoa project on hold" while Bumble Bee cannery continues discussions with the Samoa government, according to Kevin McClain, Bumble Bee’s vice president of Resourcing during the Bumble Bee- Longliners meet & greet session. (See Samoa News edition on Mar. 30 on the Bumble Bee meeting with the local longliner fleet.) The acquisition is subject to U.S. Justice Department approval.

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