Nestlé Purina made the stunning admission that they had found evidence of that slaves were used to catch fish – fish used in their cat food.
The unusual disclosure comes from Nestlé, which announced the conclusions of its year-long internal investigation on Monday.
Nestlé contracted Verité, a non-governmental organization that tackles human rights problems, to conduct a three-month assessment of its shrimp supply chain in Thailand. The report, which Nestlé has made public, identified forced labor and other human rights abuses endemic to the sector.
The report said many of the problems they observed are systemic and not unique to Nestlé; that virtually all U.S. and European companies buying seafood from Thailand are exposed to the same risks of human rights abuses in their supply chains.
Chained to the sea
The fishing industry in Thailand is built on slavery, where men are often beaten, tortured and sometimes killed – all to catch ‘trash fish’ used in pet food.
According to interviews, workers on vessels are forced to worked an average of 16 hours a day, deprived of food, water and rest. Some recall being fed just a plate of rice a day. Many described being whipped with stingray tails, beaten if they so much as took a bathroom break.
Weak from lack of sleep, many resort to meth-amphetamines just to stay awake, because those too ill to work are thrown overboard.
In the report, workers describe the dangerous conditions at sea where falling into the treacherous ocean means certain death:
“My colleague, Chit Oo, fell from the boat into the water,” wrote Ye Aung, 32, of Myanmar. “The captain said there was no need to search, he will float by himself later.”
“Sometimes, the net is too heavy and workers get pulled into the water and just disappear. When someone dies, he gets thrown into the water,” one Burmese worker told the nonprofit organization Verité commissioned by Nestlé.
“I have been working on this boat for 10 years. I have no savings. I am barely surviving,” said another. “Life is very difficult here.”
Not surprisingly, many of the workers are severely depressed and eventually realize the only escape from their misery is suicide.
Investigation launched after reports of slavery at sea
Nestlé launched the investigation in December 2014, following shocking reports from the Guardian on human trafficking and slavery in Thailand and the New York Times’ (NYT) seminal series, The Outlaw Ocean, about lawlessness on the high seas. Nestlé’s Purina brand Fancy Feast cat food was among several major brands of seafood-based pet food exported to the United States, the NYT investigation found.
Slavery tied to America’s biggest companies
Another investigative report from the Associated Press (AP) chronicled the recent release of more than 2000 “sea slaves” that had been rescued from a remote island in Indonesia, some after being held for years, beaten and kept in cages. The AP tracked the fish — caught by men who were savagely beaten and caged — to supply chains used by of some of America’s biggest food sellers, such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Sysco and Kroger, and popular brands of canned pet food like Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams.
Change will not come quickly or easily
Nestle has promised to impose new requirements on all potential suppliers and train boat owners and captains about human rights. It also plans to bring in outside auditors and assign a high-level Nestlé manager to make sure change is underway.
Nestlé said changing the situation would not be quick or easy, but that the company was hoping to make significant progress in the months ahead. Nestlé has published an Action Plan on seafood sourced from Thailand.
Consumers react with horror
When the stories began to emerge linking human slavery used to catch fish in the waters off Thailand, where most of the fish used in pet food comes from, horrified and angry consumers filed multiple class action lawsuits. Consumers felt they were unwittingly duped into supporting human rights abuses by buying pet food with fish caught by slaves, that they believe the companies were aware of.
Pet food lawsuits line up
In August, pet food buyers filed a class-action lawsuit alleging Fancy Feast cat food was the product of slave labor associated with Thai Union Frozen Products, a major distributor in the supply chain. The lawsuit, filed by California residents claims that Nestlé purchases fish from the Thai supplier known to use slave labor—and uses that fish in Fancy Feast cat food.
The suit was brought by consumers who say they would not have bought the product if they had known it had ties to slave labor. Their lawyer says that:
“By hiding this from public view, Nestlé has effectively tricked millions of consumers into supporting and encouraging slave labor on floating prisons.”
Nestle is just one of the pet food manufacturers already being sued. Following the suit against Nestlé USA Inc., and Nestlé Purina Petcare Co., another class action lawsuit was filed by the same law firm, Hagens Berman, against Iams Company and parent companies Mars Inc. and Mars Petcare US Inc. as well as the former parent company Procter & Gamble (Procter & Gamble sold their company to Mars in 2014) also accusing them of using fish in pet products with ties to the seafood supply chain linked to slave labor.
Consumers can change the world
Even with the increased global attention, hundreds of thousands of men still are forced to work in the seafood industry. While Nestlé is the focus of this story, Verité stated in their report that:
“Many of the problems reported by workers are systemic in nature and tied to the general vulnerabilities of migrant workers in Thailand; to recruitment, hiring and employment practices widely observed in the seafood sector.”
Many experts believe the most effective pressure for change can come from consumers, whose hunger for cheap seafood is helping fuel the massive labor abuses.
Hesitant applause for Nestle’s transparency
Monday’s disclosure is rare. While multinational companies in industries from garments to electronics say they investigate allegations of abuse in their supply chains, they rarely share negative findings.
Therefore, it is a stunning admission for Nestlé to make public, particularly because of the damaging admission of their involvement in the use of slaves to procure fish for use in their products.
However, the lawyer handling both the Nestlé Purina and the Iams case took a more cynical view of the disclosure, he was not impressed by Nestlé’s bravado, instead issued the following statement in response to Nestlé’s supply chain report:
“While we recognize Nestlé’s report as a step in the right direction, it does not change the fact that the company has failed to disclose the use of forced labor in its seafood supply chains to consumers.”
Of dreams and disappointments
While I want to wholeheartedly applaud Nestlé for taking this courageous step, as honesty and transparency are a rarity in this business, I hesitate in doing so.
It is my hope that Nestlé is sincere in its promise to clean up its fishy supply chain and are able to eventually restore some measure consumer confidence in sustainable sources of fish in pet food. But, my hope is tempered by the almost certain belief that Nestlé, along with other international retailers, have long been aware of the human rights abuses tied to fish in Thailand.
Yet, it is still my wish that other companies use Nestlé’s disclosure as an example of how to behave ethically and responsibly, even if Nestlé’s admission might have come sooner. Despite my doubts, Nestle, as the world’s largest producer of food in the world, is in a unique and powerful position to affect change with industry wide reforms.
Because, it’s simply not acceptable for companies to deny responsibility, not when people are kept in cages, not when people are made to work like animals for decades to pad a pet food company’s bottom line.
Without these changes, there is no hope for the preservation of human rights.
“To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”
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