Is the seafood you eat the product of slave labor?

Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism explores a disturbing connection

E. Benjamin Skinner

A six-month investigation by E. Benjamin Skinner, a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, has uncovered disturbing links between the use of forced labor in New Zealand fisheries and the food that may wind up on plates of American consumers.

Skinner’s report—“Fishing as Slaves on the High Seas”—was published online this week by Bloomberg Businessweek; the article also will appear in the Feb. 24 issue of the print magazine.

Skinner interviewed fishermen in New Zealand and Indonesia who described to him a variety of working conditions, including debt bondage, they found impossible to escape. Working on vessels jointly operated by Korean owners, but chartered by New Zealand companies, the fishermen told Skinner that they were paid far below what New Zealand law required, and that their contracts were false and their timesheets were doctored. Some also experienced abuse, intimidation and sexual violence on board the ships, as described in the Bloomberg Businessweek story. Skinner reported that the Indonesian version of their contracts provided no rights to the worker, and warned that a crew member and his family would owe nearly $3,500 if he left. “Such coerced labor is modern-day slavery, as the United Nations defines the crime,” the article states.

Because the United States imports 86 percent of its seafood—an estimated $14.7 billion worth of fish a year—it is not altogether surprising that some of the ill-gotten catch may have ended up here. According to the Bloomberg Businessweek story, two major corporations, Walmart and Safeway, have announced investigations into the allegations of possible slave labor in the supply chain of one of its fish suppliers.

The article also states that seafood caught by forced laborers in New Zealand may be sold at a variety of stores and restaurants in the United States, ranging from Sam’s Club to P.F. Chang’s China Bistro.

"This is not only a story about slavery or corporate responsibility,” Skinner told BrandeisNOW. “It's also a story about consumers' responsibility to learn what happens to our food before we put it in our bodies."

Skinner’s investigation was conducted as part of the Schuster Institute’s Modern-day Slavery and Human Trafficking Reporting Project, launched two years ago with a special grant from founding benefactors Elaine and Gerald Schuster.

One of the Schuster Institute’s goals is to focus on slavery in the supply chains of companies, tracing such products from their production to their sale, and making American consumers who purchase them aware of modern-day slavery and the role they may unwittingly play in it.

Other staff and students at the Schuster Institute contributed to the reporting. Program Associate Sophie Elsner worked to trace how seafood in New Zealand winds up in some of America’s major retailers and restaurants. More than 10 Schuster Institute student research assistants also worked on the project. The Schuster Institute hires and mentors Brandeis undergraduates to work with professional journalists on their investigations of social justice and human rights issues.

“Investigative journalism can have a huge, broad impact by bringing injustices to the attention of consumers and citizens and to the attention of the people who can do something about it,” says Schuster Institute Director Florence Graves. “And that’s the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism’s mission.”

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