The first thing that hit me was the choking smell of piles of seafood sitting in 100-degree weather. But as my eyes adjusted to the dimly lit, makeshift warehouse, I saw the kids. Rows of elementary school aged children, their heads bent and fingers flying, as they peeled off translucent shrimp husks under the angry gaze of a hulking foreman.
It was 2009 and I was on a story about education and child labor in Karachi, Pakistan. I was only there a few moments before I was chased away by suspicious overseers, but the scene has stayed with me. In fact, the sight of that foreman’s open palm smacking the back of a young girl’s head as she looked up at me curiously is something that I will never forget.
As reports on labor abuses in the global fishing industry — from human trafficking in Thailand to slavery in Bangladesh — continue to emerge, shocked consumers are wondering how to ensure their fish dinner doesn’t come at the price of human misery.
That task just got a little easier for those of us in Seattle. Fair Trade USA — the people who brought you (politically) guilt-free chocolate and coffee — will launch a Fair Trade seafood label at Safeway grocery stores this month. Seattle, Portland and Northern California will be the first markets to receive the product.
“We believe consumers in the Northwest and California are mindful about their purchases,” says Maya Spaull who works in “New Category Innovation” at Fair Trade USA. Spaull says her organization developed the program in response to market demand for socially responsible seafood and a global need for increased regulation.
“We’re the first to address working conditions,” says Spaull who estimates that 90 million people worldwide rely on the seafood sector for their livelihoods. “We’re ensuring that people are there of their own free will, that they’ve got the freedom to come and go, that they’ve got life jackets.”
In order to receive Fair Trade designation Fair Trade Fisher Associations (usually formed by groups of individual fishermen in a community or region) must meet a 250-point set of labor and environmental guidelines set by Fair Trade USA. As incentive, elected committees within the associations receive a premium (an additional 10% of the price of their product per kilo) directly back from the buyer, to be for community improvement projects.
The first associations that have formed under the Fair Trade certification are made up of about 200 yellow fin tuna fishermen of the Moluccan Island chain in Indonesia. A few of these communities have already determined how their premiums (which can be used on social and environmental projects) will be spent — from investment in infrastructure for the young fisher association to a village-wide garbage collection program.
“They’re becoming much more aware of resource protection [and] of ownership of a resource,” says Momo Kochen, who works at an Indonesian non-profit partnered with Fair Trade USA. She says the fisherman feel more empowered already, “They’re discussing things, they’re asking for more information, they’re asking about international market prices. It’s crazy what this Fair Trade has given them.”
What it’s giving us here in Seattle is tuna that we can eat with a clear conscience, says Chris Ratto, Director of Sustainability at Safeway. And while the price will clock in at $9.99 a pound (a little more expensive than the frozen tuna I found available online) Ratto assures me the Fair Trade product will taste better because “you know it also has that that social benefit.”
Fair Trade USA hopes to extend their seafood program — but they’ve got their work cut out for them. Tim Fitzgerald of Seafood Market Strategy at the Environmental Defense Fund estimates that 92-93% of seafood in the U.S. is imported. At least half of those imports come from the Global South and Fitzgerald says we know “in most cases, not a whole lot” about how those products are sourced.
Fair trade labor standards — which prohibit child labor — may not get to those kids in Karachi anytime soon. But I’ve got to hope someday they do.
In the meantime, at least I know where my next tuna steak is coming from.