WASHINGTON – Accounts of abusive conditions and forced labor have prompted the U.S. to halt imports from a Taiwan-based fishing vessel that reportedly has supplied the global tuna trading company that acquired Bumble Bee Seafoods this year.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued the order blocking shipments from the Da Wang at all American ports, the second such action by the Trump administration against a vessel in the Taiwanese shipping fleet since May.
It follows reports from Greenpeace East Asia of abuses in the second largest fleet in the world after China that partly led the agency to act this week under a U.S. law intended to keep out products tainted by forced labor.
The global fishing industry has been plagued by labor abuses for years, with workers subjected to brutal treatment often with little or no pay. Congress approved legislation providing the agency with additional authority to crack down on forced labor in 2016 after an Associated Press investigation found that seafood caught by slaves in Southeast Asia was ending up in restaurants and markets around the United States.
The CBP announcement did not mention Bumble Bee or Taiwan-based FCF, which acquired the seafood company in February following the disclosure of a price-fixing scheme among canned tuna companies in the U.S.
Andy Shen, senior oceans adviser at Greenpeace USA, said FCF confirmed it had been supplied at least once in 2019 by the Da Wang and the company did not dispute the contention in a statement it issued with Bumble Bee.
"FCF remains in ongoing communication with Greenpeace and is in complete agreement that significant progress must be made to ensure responsible labor practices are followed on all tuna vessels," it said.
The statement said the companies will continue to “make the responsible recruitment and treatment of all workers an ongoing top priority” and “will not tolerate any human rights or environmental violations in our supply chain."
A spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions from the AP about its relationship to the ship cited by Customs and Border Protection.
Shen said the U.S. order “makes it clear to U.S. buyers of Bumble Bee or FCF supplied tuna that there are legal, financial, and reputational risks” to buying from companies that abuse their workers.
“The days of turning a blind eye are over," he said.
The Da Wang, which is flagged in the island nation of Vanuatu and registered to corporate owners in Taiwan, operates in the Pacific, often transferring its cargo to larger vessels so it can stay longer at sea.
Greenpeace took statements from migrant fishermen from Indonesia who worked on the Da Wang. Workers told the environmental and human rights organization they were forced to work up to 22 hours per day, beaten and threatened by the crew, provided with little or poor quality food and had their wages withheld. They said one man who was beaten was later found dead.
Customs and Border Protection typically conducts its own investigation after receiving allegations. It issues an order that temporarily detains any shipments if it determines there is sufficient evidence of forced labor and that the goods reach the U.S. It's then up to the company to prove the goods are produced legally or to take them back.
The agency's Forced Labor Division can forward potentially criminal allegations for further investigation by others but its role is primarily to ensure fair trade, said Ana Hinojosa, executive director of CBP's trade remedy law enforcement directorate.
“The people who are subjected to forced labor are certainly victims and the human rights violations they are subjected to are just atrocious,” Hinojosa said. “For CBP, our only authority is to stop goods produced by forced labor from entering the U.S.”
CBP says importers should review reports by the State Department and Labor Department to know which industries and parts of the world carry potential risk. “Any importer that is bringing goods to the United States is responsible for ensuring that those goods are not produced though forced labor,” Hinojosa said.
Taiwanese government investigators said they have started an investigation into how authorities handled the cases of the Da Wang and another vessel cited for abuses by Greenpeace East Asia, and are examining the issue of foreign workers on fishing boats operating under flags of convenience.
A news release from the Control Yuan, Taiwan’s powerful government watchdog agency, cited the allegations in a December 2019 Greenpeace report and noted that the Fisheries Agency had referred the case to prosecutors after an initial investigation. It questioned why the boats were allowed to leave port despite that. “Are the relevant departments ineffective in law enforcement?” it asked.
Shen said Greenpeace and other nongovernmental organizations are working with FCF on voluntary measures aimed at reducing abusive treatment. He said he hopes they will include an agreement to place impartial observers on all vessels.
Associated Press videojournalist Johnson Lai in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Congress gave U.S. Customs and Border Protection new powers in 2016, not 2015, to crack down on the industry.