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Human rights due diligence in the seafood sector

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For many years, risks in the seafood sector have broadly been acknowledged, with many brands and retailers rightfully identifying seafood as a high-risk commodity.

In the wake of the most recent reports, it is clear that the most important thing businesses can and should be doing is conducting risk analysis activities across their seafood portfolio to pinpoint their risks, critically allocate resources, and identify information gaps and weaknesses.

Last week, LRQA co-hosted a session at the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions (CASS) conference that focused on data in the seafood space. In this workshop, the group considered available data sources identified gaps and took the first steps to create a vision for human rights due diligence in the seafood sector.

Why now?

The news cycle will every so often reignite the warning signs, from articles in the Guardian dating back to 2014 laying out the forced labour on Thai fishing vessels connected to shrimp aquaculture, to the most recent investigative journalism from Outlaw Ocean, shining a light on labour issues in China’s distant water fleet and illegal state-run labour at seafood processing facilities in China. These pieces of investigative journalism are difficult to read and can make us feel uncomfortable.

However, these reports all have something in common – a call to action to hold companies accountable for the activities taking place in their supply chains. Although we can recognise the progress that has been made, stories like these remind us how much more work needs to be done. It also highlights another uncomfortable truth: that we may not know nearly as much as we should about where our seafood is coming from due to the severe lack of data and traceability in seafood supply chains.

What is human rights due diligence?

Human rights due diligence, or HRDD, is the process of identifying, preventing, mitigating, and accounting for negative human rights impacts associated with a company’s operation. The expectation is that companies can demonstrate due diligence by demonstrating that they are aware of potential issues and putting resources towards minimising potential negative impacts on human rights in their supply chains. A well-formulated HRDD program goes well beyond compliance at the site level and equips companies with the roadmap to not only reactively handle issues that come to light, but also reduce the likelihood of serious issues in the future through preventative actions.

Companies are increasingly adopting HRDD strategies into their operations, in no small part due to the increasing landscape of national HRDD legislation globally (see more about HRDD legislation around the world from LRQA’s interactive map). Though social audits and compliance have been the norm, companies are now faced with the challenge of looking beyond a pass-or-fail filter for their suppliers.

The seafood sector is a key example of an industry lagging. Although audits are a common requirement at processing facilities and land-based operations, social audits are not widespread. This presents a real problem for the seafood sector given that other industries are now looking beyond social compliance, and advancing their HRDD strategies to include other, more effective measures. In short, the seafood industry has a long way to go.

The crucial role of data

An effective HRDD system relies on access to information and good data. This presents the first issue for the seafood sector. Whilst stock sustainability and fisheries management data is widespread, there is a major gap in data and information regarding human and labour rights in seafood supply chains. It is no longer enough to focus on whether the seafood was sourced from a sustainable stock, we need to better understand the context within which that fishery is operating, and how it affects those involved.

The seafood sector largely relies on secondary data sources, such as government reports, journalism, or academia as the only indicator of risk in their supply chains. This is in part due to the challenge of traceability. However, there are opportunities to leverage existing environmental efforts to trace back to fisheries/farms for on-ground data collection. By collaborating with in-country organisations, we can better understand their connection to these supply chains.

Steps need to be taken to mobilise the collection of data across supply chains, through mechanisms such as Human Rights Impact Assessments and other actions with local organisations to better understand the risk exposure. Only then can the seafood industry form the basis for remediation, capacity building, and other improvement opportunities that are pivotal to the HRDD process.

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