UBC alumni develop screening tool to help remove slave labour from seafood supply chains

A pair of UBC alumni have developed a new screening tool to help remove slave or forced labour from seafood supply chains.

'The upcoming generation of eaters has no tolerance for slavery in food'

The Labour Safe Screen, developed by two former UBC students while working on their PhDs, is a software tool that can flag slave or forced labour in the seafood supply chain. (Labour Rights Promotion Network)

A pair of UBC alumni have developed a new screening tool to help remove slave or forced labour from seafood supply chains.

It's called the Labour Safe Screen, and it uses information from workers, human rights authorities and suppliers to identify the working conditions of seafood suppliers' employees. 

Food companies, like your local grocery store can then use that information and their buying leverage to encourage better human rights practices from suppliers, thereby reducing the risk of using forced labour in their seafood supply chain. 

"My concern was how do we reconnect eaters like you and me with the people making our food, and what's it like for them, what are their aspirations and what kind of conditions are they in," said lead software developer Katrina Nakamura.

A tool for everyday purchasing decisions

Nakamura, along with Ganapathiraju Pramod started developing the tool while they completed their PhDs at UBC, focused on seafood sustainability and illegal fishing, respectively. 

"We have shown it's a matter of thinking outside the box and combining previously incompatible data from workers, suppliers and human rights authorities to see conditions accurately."

The study screened 118 seafood products with 18 participating food companies to illustrate workers' conditions across each supply chain. 

Returning from sea to Thailand's bustling seafood hubs, migrant fishermen drawn from across Southeast Asia sort fish onboard. (Labour Rights Promotion Network)

Nakamura says since purchasers already have programs that check for seafood food safety, they set up their software looking at labour safety, to work alongside it using the same technology.

"Before companies would have had no idea that the stuff they're selling from Vietnam might be made by child labour … so with our reader they're going to know and then it means that the stuff from Vietnam that's on that list is going to flag, and then the suppliers from Vietnam are going to be asked [about it] by their buyer," she said. 

'Long and fragmented supply chains'

Nakamura says forced adult and child labour in the seafood industry is hard for consumers and even grocers to see due to the many channels and long distances their seafood travels before it gets to the table, but there is a significant incidence of using unpaid labour and trafficking workers in some hubs of the fishing industry. 

"Most of the products in our study had very long and fragmented supply chains and a majority of workers who are migrants and subcontracted to brokers or working without a contract. These conditions cause vulnerability and were previously invisible, even to social auditors," said Nakamura. 

According to a 2016 U.S. Department of State report, forced labour in the seafood industry was reported in 47 countries. 

In 2015, more than 2,000 trapped fisherman were freed following an Associated Press investigation into slavery in Thailand's seafood industry. 

Poor migrant workers and children were being sold to and made to peel shrimp by Thai factories that worked into international seafood supply chains, including notable companies like Red Lobster and Walmart. 

Nakamura says three of the companies they worked with during the study period decided to use information gained through screening to improve conditions for workers. 

"The upcoming generation of eaters has no tolerance for slavery in food. The food we eat can and should be people-safe," said Nakamura.

Nakamura says she's currently working on setting the Labour Safe Screen software up with other companies, including a large Hong Kong hotel group.

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Cory Correia

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Cory Correia is a reporter with CBC Vancouver. Send him an email at cory.correia@cbc.ca