TOKYO/BANGKOK/SINGAPORE -- Thai Union has promised to deploy electronic monitoring systems in all of its suppliers' tuna fishing vessels by 2025 to crack down on labor rights violations, a move that could have a far-reaching impact on the industry's business practices.
The world's top producer of canned tuna will use equipment, including cameras, global positioning systems and sensors, that will track working conditions on board as part of the company's commitment to "100% transparency" in its tuna supply chain.
As Southeast Asia emerges as a key supplier of food for the world, food and agricultural companies in the region are moving to address human rights concerns in their supply chains.
The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are responsible for about a fifth of global fish catches, more than China, and ASEAN members Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand provide roughly 90% of the world's palm oil.
The fishing industry in particular has been rife with abuse and illegal practices, with immigrant and migrant crews forced to work under inhumane conditions, and monitoring activity out on the water has been a challenge.
The EU threatened to ban seafood imports from Thailand in 2015. While the warning was lifted in 2019, there remains heavy pressure on companies across a range of sectors to clean up their act, with regulators in a number of markets implementing tougher due diligence requirements.
The hope is that the step by Thai Union, which supplies about 20% of the world's canned tuna, can push other seafood companies in the right direction worldwide.
"I look forward to the sustainable future Thai Union... can help create through increased electronic monitoring and transparency throughout the seafood industry," CEO Thiraphong Chansiri said.
Other agricultural companies are taking a more indirect approach, looking to address poor productivity and low incomes that are seen as a root cause of human rights abuses, and improve working conditions in the process.
Palm oil supply chains, for example, are also plagued by exploitation problems. U.S. Customs and Border Protection last year banned the import of palm oil from two major Malaysian producers over concerns about forced labor.
Singapore-based Apical Group, one of Indonesia's largest palm oil producers, and palm plantation manager Asian Agri launched a program this month with Japanese household goods maker Kao to help small local palm farmers improve yields and boost sales. The project aims to support about 5,000 farms by 2030, through dialogue, education and technical guidance.
Olam International, a Singaporean trading company, seeks to increase the yields of cashew suppliers in Vietnam and elsewhere by 50% by 2030, ultimately bolstering farmers' standards of living.
Such initiatives are likely to only increase in importance to help ensure the stability and sustainability of global food markets.