By Juliane Caillouette-Noble, SRA Head of Development

For years global media coverage has exposed the high human cost of the cheap seafood industry. Stories that have exposed high volumes of human trafficking, gross human rights violations and even routine murder deep in the supply chain of some of the biggest global companies have startled consumers and sent shock waves throughout the industry. But have they made an impact?

To address that question, the Guardian Sustainable Business Network hosted a panel of experts at The Guardian HQ in London last week. The room was packed, hanging on the words of the panelists from Thai Union, an NGO, Environmental Justice Foundation, a barrister, Parish Chandra, award- winning human rights barrister and UN expert on human trafficking, and Seafish. Hosted by Annie Kelly, a Guardian journalist focusing on Global Development and the Modern-day Slavery project.

So, what is happening and why?

First of all, the panel was incredibly quick to point out that human rights violations are happening in the seafood supply chain across the globe. This is not an issue that is specific to one big corporation or one territory, though many of the most appalling stories are coming out of Thailand. Steve Trent said that with 30 years experience working in human rights and environmental security, he has never seen anything like what was happening with in Thailand right now. 58% of fishermen had reported witnessing a murder on a boat while at sea. From Steve’s perspective, we have to start somewhere, and Thailand is the worst offender.

Why does the issue persist?

Annie pressed the panelists: are corporates actually looking hard enough for the abuses that are happening or are they turning the other cheek?

The panel was split. On the one hand Thai Union and Seafish felt that the issue is too big to be dealt with alone, and collaboration is the only way to make change. As with any issue of scale, things take time. There are schemes out there, namely the Responsible Fishing Scheme from Seafish to help businesses address issues across their supply chain, and voluntary schemes like theirs can give the guidance and the processes needed to make changes.

On the other hand, from EJF and Parish Chandra’s perspective— if your supply chain is too long to easily weed out gross human rights violations the answer is simple: shorten your supply chain. Traceability has become incredibly prevalent with seafood in the last few years, we can now trace exactly where a fish has been caught, where it has been landed, and where it travels on its way to our plates— why aren’t we doing the same for labour?

What can be done?

The conversation came to a close by looking ahead at what can, and should be done to make a difference. There were four key points that came across:

  1. Data Revolution As with the data that has transformed our understanding of where our fish comes from, and helps to define what is ‘sustainable’ seafood— we are on the brink of seeing a revolution when it comes to labour. In the near future if you buy fish you should know both the environmental and the social conditions under which that fish was caught.
  1. Consumer Demand As appalled as Guardian readers might be reading stories of slavery over a cup of tea, the truth is that we know what happens when consumers are faced with the option of prawns and cheap prawns. Consumers need to start voting with their pound and show the industry that they are willing to support the change.
  1. Government Action Governments and bodies like the EU need to start sanctioning countries that are violating human rights. The EU has begun action on this – yellow carding Thailand, which means that unless Thailand implements a number of change actions, they will be slapped with hundreds of millions of dollars in trade embargo.
  1. Start with the catching SeaFish’s Responsible Catching scheme, though voluntary, does look at crew welfare and integrity. The more retailers and manufactures that sign up to the scheme, and enforce the idea that they will NOT buy from vessels that do not abide by the conditions of the scheme, the stronger it will be.

Ultimately, we, the consumers, the diners, the industry, whoever the we may be…. need only to be buying, cooking, serving and eating seafood that is legal, sustainable AND ethical. Now is the time to stand up and be counted.

For more detail, and complete coverage, video from the panel will be posted on the Guardian Sustainable Business network website on Friday 7th October.