Forced Labor in China’s Seafood Industry Explored At Hearing

(Washington)—The bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) held a hearing today looking at the rampant use of forced labor in China’s seafood industry and how seafood caught and processed with forced labor ends up in the U.S. supply chains. The CECC’s Chairs, Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) were joined at the hearing by Commissioner Thea Lee, the Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs at the Department of Labor. The CECC includes five Executive Branch members and bipartisan Congressional members from the House and Senate.

In his opening statement CECC Chair Representative Chris Smith lauded the work of The Outlaw Ocean Project whose reporting exposed a “disconcerting pattern of People’s Republic of China (PRC) based companies exploiting the forced labor of Uyghurs and North Koreans to process substantial quantities of seafood destined for the U.S. market. From fish sticks to calamari, these products infiltrate the supply chains of major restaurants, wholesalers, and even find their way into the meals served at American schools and military bases. Such actions directly contravene the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) and the Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Acts (CAATSA), both of which strictly prohibit the importation of goods produced by forced labor into the U.S.” “It is evident,” continued Smith, “that the PRC is not the sole party involved in these reprehensible practices. Governments—including our own—have been complicit in the procurement of tainted seafood. This is also why Senator Merkley and I, have drafted a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, calling for a comprehensive investigation into not only the PRC’s disturbing activities at sea and on land but also the weaknesses in our system and the complicity of the private sector in the seafood industry.” 

The letter from the Chairs urging DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to act “immediately and robustly” to curb seafood imports caught or processed with forced labor in China and to coordinate U.S. government response so that “America’s seafood supply chains are force labor-free” can be found here.       

Ian Urbina, the Director and Founder of The Outlaw Ocean Project, said in his testimony that his reporting focused on China because it “is the undisputed superpower of seafood because its distant water fishing fleet, which is to say those vessels in foreign or international waters, is vastly bigger than that of any other country. So too is China’s processing capacity: even seafood caught by U.S.-flagged vessels, in our own waters, is often shipped to China to be cleaned, cut and packaged before being sent back to American consumers… At sea, the problem of forced labor is endemic and varied. Debt bondage. Human trafficking. Beating of crews. Criminal neglect in the form of beriberi. Passport confiscation. Wage withholding. Denial of timely access to medical care. Death from violence…On land, the problem of forced labor is deep and consistent. Especially after the start of the global pandemic led to severe labor, logistical and supply chain problems in China, the government there began helping its massive seafood industry keep production and exports up and running. It did so by moving thousands of workers across the country from Xinjiang…in the far west, to coastal Shandong.” Ian Urbina’s full testimony can be found here.

Greg Scarlatoiu, the Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) provided evidence of the dire situation of North Korean workers in the Chinese seafood industry based on a survey his team conducted in China. “North Korean workers have long been involved in the Chinese overseas seafood processing industry. Over three thousand workers were employed pre-COVID in seafood processing plants in the northeastern Chinese city of Hunchun… Historically, North Korean laborers have not only suffered from the severely inhumane working and living conditions but have also been explicitly discriminated against by their Chinese employers... During the COVID-19 quarantine period, the workers received no wages, and the interest on loans they had taken from loan sharks in North Korea increased, leading to roughly 30 female laborers taking their own lives. North Korean escapees interviewed for our survey who were formerly directly involved in North Korean seafood exports to China or the dispatch of North Korean workers to Chinese seafood processing plants, concurred with Mr. Urbina’s findings [that seafood] processed and packaged by Uyghurs and North Koreans was sent to dozens of U.S. importers.” Greg Scarlatoiu’s testimony can be found here

Robert Stumberg, Professor of Law at Georgetown University stated that “Two-hundred and forty—that’s the number of name-brand stores and institutional suppliers that we all depend on. Through them, we all buy seafood from importers who sell what forced laborers process in Chinese factories and vessels. We do it as families, as schools, as businesses. What is not in that number are the ways we buy forced-labor seafood as governments, mostly through five federal agencies and local school food authorities” and offered his recommendations for how to close gaps in federal procurement so that the U.S. government does not buy seafood with forced labor. Professor Stumberg’s full testimony and recommendations can be found here.

Sally Yozell, the Director of the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center offered a comprehensive overview of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and the challenges faced by the United States and other governments’ in addressing the challenged posed by China’s IUU fishing saying, “No single agency or organization alone can solve this challenge. IUU fishing is a global problem that requires global solutions. The United States government has the opportunity – and responsibility – to chart a path forward to move the global seafood supply chain out of the shadows. A transparent system will benefit all…The multidimensional problem of IUU fishing needs an equally multidimensional solution. Viewing risk in a more holistic way – and creating a synchronized system to communicate that risk between and among relevant agencies, businesses, and stakeholders – is exactly the path forward to gain more success.”  Sally Yozell’s testimony can be accessed here.

CECC Cochair Jeff Merkely closed the hearing by saying that the human rights conditions detailed by the witnesses were ones “this Commission was determined to highlight and to develop, as much as possible, legislative strategies to increase our ability to improve those conditions.”  

Additional submitted testimonies from Stephanie Madsen, Executive Director of At-Sea Processors Association; Judy Gearhart, Research Professor at the Accountability Research Center at American University; Badri Jimale, Director of Horn of African Institute, and Michael Sinclair, former Federal Executive Fellow at The Brookings Institute can be found at the hearing webpage “From Bait to Plate—How Forced Labor in China Taints America’s Seafood Supply Chain.”

An archived hearing video can be found on the CECC’s YouTube channel.