The federal government struggles to evaluate forced labor allegations in the seafood industry, according to a Government Accountability Office report released this month.
The United States relies on imports for most of its seafood, and in recent years the seafood Americans eat have been linked to abusive labor practices.
In 2015, the Associated Press reported that seafood produced by slaves made its way into major U.S. grocery stores and pet food brands, such as Wal-Mart, Sysco, Kroger, Fancy Feast and Iams.
Around the world, about 25 million people are forced into labor, about 12 percent of them in the agriculture and fishing sectors, according to a 2017 United Nations report.
The GAO interviewed seafood industry stakeholders about their communication with the Customs and Border Protection, which is in charge of determining whether imports were produced with forced labor.
Most stakeholders were unsure what type of information customs agents needed to investigate forced labor cases in the seafood industry.
“It was not clear what constitutes a credible allegation for CBP,” one stakeholder said.
Over the past four years, the agency has only seized one shipment of seafood — tuna — for violating labor practices.
To initiate forced labor cases or advance existing ones, CBP officials said they obtain information from media reports, other federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations that interact with people who have been forced to work in the seafood industry.
For example, in 2015, Thailand’s shrimp industry repeatedly appeared in the headlines. In response, CBP initiated a case and collected information from companies importing shrimp from Thailand.
CBP’s Forced Labor Division has also formed working relationships with foreign journalists to help with cases.
However, CBP officials said they face challenges using information from non-governmental organizations because that information is sometimes not enough to initiate or investigate a forced labor case. Sometimes advocates confuse poor working conditions with forced labor, the CBP said.
The GAO report suggests CBP better communicate what information would be useful to initiate a forced labor case. The agency has not yet done so.