Seafood Groups Weigh in On USTR’s Forced Labor Strategy

In July, a Federal Register Notice was published by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) inviting comments from the public regarding the USTR’s efforts to coordinate the federal government’s development of a focused trade strategy to combat forced labor in foreign supply chains. Comments were due on Friday, August 5th and the USTR heard from a number of groups with particular concerns regarding forced labor practices in foreign seafood supply chains.

The Southern Shrimp Alliance (SSA) submitted comments arguing that an effective trade strategy for addressing forced labor must be built around border measures designed to keep goods produced through forced labor out of international commerce. SSA observed that public awareness campaigns, on their own, were an insufficient mechanism for preventing foreign producers and U.S. importers from profiting off goods produced through severe human rights abuses. Citing to the example of the shift made by U.S. shrimp importers from sourcing peeled shrimp from Thailand to sourcing peeled shrimp from India, SSA explained that despite clear and well-documented risks of forced labor in India that mirrored the conditions that had resulted in slave labor abuse in Thailand, little scrutiny had been applied to the change in supply chains. With an effective border measure regime administered by federal authorities, a governmental response to the slave labor occurring in contract peeling sheds in Thailand would have led to more substantial questioning of the transfer of sourcing to contract peeling sheds in India.

In addition to SSA’s filing, the Seafood Working Group (SWG) submitted extensive comments emphasizing the importance of border measures to address forced labor in seafood supply chains. The SWG, composed of Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF), FishWise, Greenpeace, Serve the People Association (SPA), Solidarity Center, Sustainability Incubator, Taiwan Association for Human Rights, and the Yilan Migrant Fishers Union (YMFU), observed that the “particularly opaque and circuitous nature of seafood supply chains has allowed products tainted by forced labor to reach U.S. consumers.” To prevent this from occurring in the future, the SWG made a number of recommendations, including that the High Seas Driftnet Fishing Moratorium Protection Act (HSDFMPA) be expanded to encompass forced labor practices, that NOAA Fisheries account for labor and human rights violations in its administration of the Moratorium Protection Act, that the provisions of the proposed America COMPETES Act that addressed forced labor in seafood supply chains be enacted, and that the United States consider adopting something similar to the European Union’s Third Country Carding Process for illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The SWG further recommended that NOAA Fisheries adjust requirements for the importation of seafood under the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) to collect data on labor conditions in seafood supply chains.

The GLJ-ILRF, along with another coalition of organizations (composed of The Freedom Fund, Walk Free, the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, and the McCain Institute), separately submitted comments supporting the SWG’s recommendations regarding the enhancement of SIMP to include information collection about labor conditions. These organizations also underscored the importance of border measures to meaningfully address forced labor in seafood supply chains. Notably, the coalition of organizations led by the Freedom Fund argued that the foundation of regulation of seafood sold in the American marketplace was equality in treatment between foreign and domestically-sourced fish: “Seafood imports must be held to the same standards as U.S.-caught fish.”

The National Fisheries Institute (NFI), the primary voice of U.S. seafood importers, submitted comments expressing concern regarding any enforcement measures undertaken with respect to seafood produced through forced labor and asserted, without evidence, that seafood harvested through IUU fishing and forced labor are “rarely ship[ped] to a U.S. customer.” NFI bemoaned the prospect that the development of a focused trade strategy to address forced labor in foreign supply chains would “trigger nontariff retaliation against U.S. exports or otherwise burden an industry that must have access to global markets.” NFI noted that “in 2021 seafood exports fell to a level not seen since 2011.” As might be anticipated from the organization, NFI’s comments do not mention that the United States imported over US$27.8 billion in seafood (imports under Chapter 3, 1604, and 1605 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States) in 2021, an amount that massively surpassed all previous years and represented an increase of 30 percent compared to 2020 (US$21.9 billion) and almost double the value of seafood imported in 2010 (US$14.6 billion). In sum, the decline in U.S. seafood exports emphasized by NFI occurred coincident to a record year in U.S. seafood imports, demonstrating that the openness of the U.S. market has done little to increase access for the U.S. seafood industry to foreign markets.

“The American seafood industry, including our shrimp industry, applauds the USTR’s efforts to reform trade policy to account for forced labor in foreign supply chains,” said John Williams, the Executive Director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance. “For far too long, our market has allowed seafood importers to profit off the misery and exploitation of vulnerable people around the world. Cheap seafood has always come with a heavy toll paid by someone else and it is well past time that these harms are squarely and honestly addressed.” 

The USTR’s request for comments regarding the development of a focused trade strategy for addressing forced labor and all comments received by the USTR in response to its request may be found here: https://www.regulations.gov/document/USTR-2022-0006-0001

The Southern Shrimp Alliance’s August 5, 2022 comments to the USTR may be accessed here: https://www.shrimpalliance.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/SSA-Aug-5-Comments-to-USTR-on-Forced-Labor-Strategy.pdf

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