Politics of Poverty

Is your shrimp salad causing inequality in Asia?

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Fishermen and seafood dealers weigh the catch at Nakasong, on the Mekong river in southern Lao PDR. (Photo: Savann Oeurm / Oxfam America)

Despite recent reforms, the seafood sector continues to be the source of harm for the environment and industry workers. A bolder and more inclusive vision is needed to uplift millions out of poverty and reduce the gaps between the rich and poor in the seafood value chains.

Art Prapha is a Senior Advisor with Oxfam America, based in Bangkok

According to Oxfam’s latest report on rising inequality, the eight richest men own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world. While this fact is not an attack on those eight individuals, one should be alarmed by the systems that have enabled this kind of wealth concentration to take place.

If inequality is the “defining issue of our time”, then the inequalities in the seafood sector is one of the best demonstrations of how this issue plays out for the poorest people in the world. The fact of the matter is, institutional reforms have not succeeded and we need a bolder vision to lift millions out of poverty and reduce the gaps between the rich and the poor in our seafood’s value chains.

In Asia, inequality within countries has produced similarly worrying statistics. In Thailand, the richest man’s earnings from one year could completely eradicate poverty in his country; and in Vietnam, the country’s richest man can earn in one day what the poorest person earns in 10 years. In Indonesia, the poorest 40 percent of Indonesians (around 100 million people) share only 1.4 percent of the country’s wealth ($24 billion) and this is less than the wealth owned by the top four richest individuals in the country ($25 billion).

And what do all of these countries have in common? They all are major seafood exporters to the US, UK, and European markets.

Social costs of cheap seafood

Many of Asia’s billionaires built their enormous wealth from producing, processing, and exporting seafood products to international markets. This has not come without social costs to the local communities and vulnerable workers in their countries. In Thailand, for example, we have seen devastating effects of overfishing and the use of unsustainable ‘trash fish’ in animal feed production.

The use of devastating and illegal fishing techniques and equipment, such as deep sea trawling, has been identified as the major cause of the ocean’s ecological destruction. The declining fish stocks have a direct threat to local food security and have intensified the poverty level for the poorest populations in Thailand and Indonesia, as they are unable to work and support their families’ health and educational needs.

Apart from the environmental concerns in seafood production, the Asia’s fishing sector is also plagued with forced labor and ongoing labor rights abuses. Workers from Indonesia, Myanmar, and Cambodia have been subjected to unfair and illegal recruitment and many have faced physical assaults while working in the industry. Increasingly, fishing vessels and operators are being convicted of using child labor from neighboring countries to work under extremely tough conditions on fishing vessels.

Female migrant workers, who peel the cheap cocktail shrimps found in your local supermarkets, are often subjected to illegal recruitment and have often had their travel documents and wages withheld. Oxfam’s local partners in Asia have found that female workers are being paid less than their male counterparts and have little negotiation power to change the situation. And, many suffer long working hours in cold temperature factories in order to keep the seafood fresh for exported consumption.

What can be done?

First, institutional reforms have been put in place for a number of years but local civil society organizations (CSOs) see little progress being made in workers’ lives and their communities. The reforms were costly, time-consuming and required a great deal of coordination across the globe.

Despite these policy reforms, governments have been unable to translate them into effective implementation, in part because the process lacks one powerful ingredient: Trust. While the private sector has initiated various projects to clean up their supply chains, the supposed ethic of ‘shared responsibility’ is not being extended to workers, fishing communities, and CSOs in the concerned countries.

When workers and CSOs working on the ‘frontlines’ are excluded from the negotiating table, an important accountability mechanism is missing. Civil society actors are best placed to monitor and provide needed feedback on complex and dynamic systems like this – but governments and the private sector must let them. They must let go of some power and control and let those affected by the problems have a say in their solutions.

Second, ‘bottom-up’ collaborations between civil society actors require a guiding framework and effective structure. There are many CSOs working in the seafood sector and understandably this can be an overwhelming space for governments and private sector to begin meaningful engagement.

A good place to start might be to invest in CSO Coalitions for Ethical and Sustainable Seafood. An effort like this could help provide a common platform for making recommendations for the sector and measuring impact. It’s also an idea that has gained traction with several local CSOs in the region. A Thai CSO Coalition was started in 2016, with a mission to eradicate modern-day slavery and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing throughout the Thai seafood supply chains. The Coalition brought together both environmental and social NGOs to share their work, co-create strategies, and collectively engage the Thai government and leading Thai and international seafood buyers and sellers. This is a promising example for others in the industry to follow.

The rapid rise in global inequality should be an incredibly worrying trend for us all. From my work with Oxfam, I’ve seen how seafood has become emblematic of the inequality issues faced by the poorest communities around the world. Luckily, in the case of seafood,  diverse actors from governments and seafood suppliers, to supermarkets, CSOs, and consumers have thought long and hard about how to tackle these challenges. Nevertheless, US supermarkets and industries should take the proactive approach to work with CSO Coalitions in their respective regions and countries. If progress is to be made, the time is now to mobilize much needed political will and share responsibility and more widely before more lives are harmed, and wealth gaps are further widened – all for a little shrimp salad.

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