How can we work differently to protect fishers and their human rights in the seafood industry?

Lessons from the 11th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights.

By Zacari Edwards – IPNLF Social Responsibility Director


Human rights and labour issues in the seafood sector are well documented, and since the initial expose of human rights abuses in the Thai seafood sector almost a decade ago, our industry has moved on; now understanding such issues can and do pervade seafood supply chains all over the world. So as I landed in Geneva to attend the 11th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights at the end of November, I had two main objectives; first to understand more about what solutions human rights organisations have found to have the most impact, and second, to think about the potential applicability of such solutions within the context of the seafood sector.


“In this sense the message was clear; keep workers at the center of any and all solutions to protect their own rights, or continue to repeat mistakes of the past, failing rights-holders in the process.” 


Addressing Power Imbalances through Worker Driven Solutions 

Throughout the whole conference a key area of discussion was addressing power imbalances between workers and businesses. Where in the past powerful market actors have passed costs and reporting burdens down the supply chain, going forward worker driven solutions were presented as offering the greatest scope for protecting the human rights of the most vulnerable across all sectors. 

What was really being discussed at the forum was an idea of systemic change, where the marketplace facilitates mechanisms for workers to define their own solutions to protect their rights. To achieve this change it was argued that market actors need to shift to seeing it as their primary responsibility to protect the most vulnerable in their sectors, rather than managing their own reputational risk as a priority. 

The efficacy of worker driven approaches was reiterated throughout multiple sessions at the forum. So why are worker driven approaches thought to be so effective? It was explained that if empowered, it is workers that have the most scope to effectively identify and address challenges to their own human rights, and more broadly it is workers that are the only actors that are solely interested in preventing the abuses they face. Therefore, rather than being a one size fits all top-down approach, through worker driven approaches workers can efficiently develop tailor-made solutions that match their specific needs and context. Ultimately, the underlying message was that if nothing else, companies must work more with the people on the ground and put workers at the center of discussions about how to best protect their rights. 


Moving Away from Voluntary Approaches for Protecting Human Rights 

Another key theme covered was the need to move away from voluntary approaches towards ensuring legally binding mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) takes place in supply chains. There was a general consensus that 11 years on from the The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) being introduced, the voluntary measures they outlined have had an insufficient impact on the ground, especially for those suffering abuses. 

In this vacuum, businesses have been implementing voluntary HRDD processes without legal mechanisms to ensure companies are fully compliant with the criteria of the UNGPs.  In practice this has had an impact on accountability, creating an environment where some businesses have been able to avoid being fully transparent about the outcomes of their voluntary due diligence processes on workers. A solution put forward at the forum was for countries to introduce legislation at the national level to create legally binding obligations to ensure HRDD practices align with the UNGPs. However, it was also noted that this process will be slow, complex and riddled with political constraints. 

The Fair Food Programme (FFP) was highlighted as an alternative approach that offers a potential solution for legally binding HRDD outside of introducing such national legislation.  The programme was designed out of a recognition that conventional social audits and voluntary market solutions were failing workers.  


“As Albert Einstein put it, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So putting forward social auditing as a solution as it has been used in CSR during the past 30 years, failing rights holders, is simply nonsensical.” 

— Greg Astern, Fair Food Programme Representative. 


The FFP is an approach underpinned by ensuring mandatory conduct of HRDD takes place, but is driven by, and is inclusive of workers at all stages. This unique approach addresses the issue of power imbalances, by also integrating a legally binding obligation for companies to address and prevent the issues most affecting workers.  This approach will be applied in the fishing industry for the first time in 2023 in the United Kingdom, and the International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF) will be joining many others hoping to see FFP replicate its success from the agriculture sector in a seafood context. 


Lessons for the Seafood Sector 

Throughout the forum it was clear that the conversation amongst human rights organisations differed from the type of discussion taking place in the seafood sector. Centering workers at the heart of solutions to protect their own rights appeared to be a consensus shared by all human rights groups at the forum. However, the seafood industry on the other hand has been infatuated with business-led top down solutions to address urgent environmental issues, and as an industry we seem polarized on whether to retro-fit such top down approaches to now address human rights issues, or reorientate ourselves entirely and pursue worker driven solutions that have been successful in other sectors. 

The sustainable seafood movement has been largely focused on designing market-based solutions intended to help address environmental issues in fisheries. However, as the extent of human rights and labour issues in the seafood sector became clear, extensive efforts have been made to ensure existing schemes initially designed to address environmental issues, expand their scope to also address social issues. Fast forward to present day and social responsibility is embedded in the sustainable seafood movement, with social responsibility criteria integrated into prominent voluntary market-based tools such as certification schemes, Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs), and more bespoke company-designed audited standards. 

The need for greater integration of workers in social responsibility solutions is not a novel concept in our industry. Organisations such as the International Labour Rights Forum (ILRF) advocated for worker driven approaches to social responsibility in the seafood sector from as early as 2018. More recently the International Transport Federation (ITF) and Nottingham University Rights Lab have criticised the seafood sector as a whole for its lack of meaningful engagement with worker unions, as well as its overreliance on voluntary mechanisms for addressing human rights issues, despite substantial evidence from other sectors that such approaches have failed to protect workers. 

There is a consequent growing self awareness in the seafood sector that increasing worker involvement in designing, implementing and governing approaches to protecting their rights is a key area that needs to be addressed. This however represents a complete shift in thinking and a complete reorientation from the market-led approach that has underpinned the movement to date. In contrast, the discussions at the forum showed that other sectors have largely moved on from conversations still being had in our industry. To put it more bluntly, it was clear that our industry is entertaining solutions that are not in line with current thinking on what constitutes best practice for protecting the rights of workers.

It is well known that the seafood industry has additional challenges to other sectors in protecting the rights of its workers. Yet paradoxically, whilst the agriculture, fashion, and technology industries were all embedded in sessions throughout the conference, the seafood industry appeared to be far more disconnected from the dialogue being had in the human rights space.  For me this is indicative of how the sustainable seafood movement is still operating largely in silo when it comes to thinking about solutions to address human rights challenges. Going forward we can do so much more to improve our knowledge exchange with human rights organisations and to mainstream these types of discussions in the seafood sector.