Matt Nippert is a business investigations reporter.

NZ connection to slaves

Thai seafood conglomerate is condemned for its use of slave labour, including the locking of indentured labourers in cages. Photo / AP
Thai seafood conglomerate is condemned for its use of slave labour, including the locking of indentured labourers in cages. Photo / AP

New Zealanders and their pets have consumed more than 600 tonnes of seafood sourced from a Thai conglomerate condemned for its use of slave labour, including the locking of indentured labourers in cages.

Figures released by the New Zealand Customs Service under the Official Information Act show seafood giant Thai Union has been a consistent exporter to New Zealand, with more than 620,000kg of product - breaded and frozen shrimp, fish fillets, canned tuna and salmon, surimi and material for pet food - entering the country last year.

The revelation comes the same week as environmental lobby group Greenpeace launched a campaign targeting Thai Union's fishing fleet in the Indian Ocean, and journalism's highest award - a Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting - went to the Associated Press for its landmark expose of the Thai fishing industry.

The AP's Seafood from Slaves series was a multi-year investigation, which reported Burmese indentured labourers were kept in cages between fishing trips and bosses referred to prawn-peelers by numbers and didn't pay for their 16-hour shifts.

The slave-tainted seafood was tracked through to end-consumers, and many products were found to run through Thai Union networks and subsidiaries. Pulitzer judges said the series had "freed 2000 slaves, brought perpetrators to justice and inspired reforms".

The range of Thai Union products entering New Zealand, including material specifically flagged for Purina pet food and large quantities of prawns for human consumption, is considerably wider than has previous been acknowledged.

When the scandal over Thai Union's labour practices broke last year it was reported only a limited number of affected products - cat food brands Fancy Feast, Iams and Meow Mix - were being sold here.

However the full extent of Thai Union products on New Zealand shelves remains unknown as Customs declined to name importers as this could "prejudice the commercial position of these companies".

Request for comment from Thai Union this week went unanswered. In December the company said concerns about subcontractors meant it was shortening its supply chains to bring all such work in-house.

Greenpeace, which made the initial request under the OIA, has laid a formal complaint with the Ombudsman seeking disclosure of importer details.

Greenpeace's Tim McKinnel said the scale of Thai Union's New Zealand sales was concerning.

"It appears to be coming in a range of products - but we don't know who it's coming to. Consumers have a right to be informed, and so do retailers," he said.

Retailers distance themselves

Local retailers have been quick to distance themselves from the worst excesses of the international seafood industry.

Foodstuffs, encompassing Pak'n Save and New World supermarkets, did not directly answer questions on whether it stocked Thai Union product on shelves or in house-brand products. Instead, a spokeswoman stressed its role in efforts to clean up the sector: "We recognise that there are inherent problems associated with working with the Thai fishing industry."

Rival operator Progressive Enterprises, which runs Countdown and Woolworths stores, said none of its stock came from either of the Thai Union sites identified by the Associated Press as slave labour camps.

However a spokeswoman said Progressive sourced some material from the company: "Select canned tuna and canned salmon are manufactured at two Thai Union factories, however these factories have been independently audited to ensure they are adhering to our ethical and quality standards. No issues with child labour have been raised as part of those audits."

Pet food maker Mars said the issue of slave labour was alarming. "The practice is deplorable and goes against everything Mars stands for."

A spokeswoman said the affair had spurred efforts to better understand and improve its supply chain. "Mars is also working with other highly regarded organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund to trace the origins of our fish ingredients in Europe and Asia-Pacific to help us develop our global seafood sourcing strategy."

Nestle, makers of Purina pet food, said it imported some finished products for sale in New Zealand from Thai Union, but significant progress had been made to "prevent unacceptable practices and human right abuse in the seafood supply chain".

A spokeswoman said improved transparency meant "99 per cent" of its ingredients could now be traced to individual vessels.

Pet food makers Whiskas did not respond to Herald on Sunday questions.

UPDATE: In a written response received after this story was first published, Thai Union said it took reports of human rights abuses very seriously and was determined to stamp out illegal and inhumane labour practices. The company said it had over the past six months brought all shrimp processing in-house and eliminated recruitment fees for workers at its factories and processing plants in Thailand.

- Herald on Sunday

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