Q&A: An Inside Look at Thai Union’s New Sustainability Strategy

Thai Union Group Director of Sustainable Development Darian McBain talks about the company's efforts to eradicate illegal fishing and human trafficking and why pressure from Greenpeace and the European Union can be a good thing for the sector.

What is Thai Union currently working on in terms of sustainability?

Our main project is “Sea Change” — We put that together to address some of the most pressing issues that people ask about whether they be retailers, NGOs, or governments. It covers all major pillars — from safe and legal labor, responsible sourcing, marine conservation and people and communities — and we’ve been putting together some plans moving towards 2020. What we found people want to know is what are we doing, when we are going to do it by, and what have we achieved to date – so that’s what Sea Change is all about. In addition, we have action plans that cover each year in the lead up to 2020 that cover all those areas.

How is this progressing?

We are having a consultation on Sea Change at the moment – we’ve tried to be very transparent, ask everyone for input – how do they think we’re going, where do they think we should be going. We’ve had events: I’ve been to see people in Australia, the US, coming to the UK soon, so we’ve really had a lot of feedback. That consultation closes at the end of June. Then we will spend a month or so reviewing what we have, what people would like to see and then update our website to be even more interactive. What we really want to make sure we can do is keep up with emerging issues and let people know how it is progressing.

What tangible results are you seeing?

From the consultations we can see the direction that people want us to be going in, so they’ve been quite validating in that we haven’t had anyone say there is a major gap or you’re completely on the wrong track. It is coming at the end of other consultations as well – we did a consultation with our stakeholders at the end of last year on our sustainability report and what people thought of that. We are constantly engaging with different stakeholders this is just a more formalized approach – I think it keeps us honest and on track.

How important do you see Thai Union’s role in improving the image of the wider Thai seafood industry? Do you see it Thai Union’s role to lead by example?

I think we’re synonymous with Thailand and seafood – we’re the biggest in the world in canned tuna. What many people don’t realize is Thai Union is a global company, we happened to be headquartered in Bangkok and we have Thai operations, but we also have operations all over the world. I think we need leaders in this space, whether you are looking to be like a Unilever in palm oil, in seafood you do need leaders. With headquarters in Thailand we see that we have a role to play in setting the agenda, not just for Thai seafood, but in how seafood can be more sustainable in general.

By being so big, is it fair to say it makes the job more difficult as your supply chains are more complex?

The supply chains are certainly more complex but that brings with it greater opportunities. If we want to lead by example, we can lead that way in a number of different areas where perhaps a smaller company would have fewer areas they could take leadership in and at a scale where we can talk with the European Union, or we can talk with the United States, we can talk with Royal Thai Government, so that does help in that leadership role.

What tangible evidence have you see that your approach is working?

We’ve seen some good evidence on the ground — we have been working with local NGOs here in Thailand for a few years now, and in particular we’ve been working on recruitment issues and labor hiring policies. Working with migrant workers rights network (MWRN), and project Issara, they helped us develop our new recruitment fee policy which was announced in April. The work is ongoing, I don’t think you can ever say you have resolved all recruitment issues, particularly when it comes to migrant workers, but just last week, we had the director general of employment of Thailand come to our factories to meet the workers recruited under this policy to better understand how Thai Union has implemented it and so he can get a better understanding of what we put in place. He said he would look at using this model as an example of good practice in Thailand and see how he can promote it to other businesses and small to medium sized enterprises. We have also been approached by other governments to find out more details of how we have implemented it to see how it is possible. So I think there is evidence that our approach is starting to work.

What more needs to be done to tackle the issue of human trafficking and forced labor?

There needs to be change throughout the industry so all of the different players need to work together, raise the base line so that the illegal practices are stamped out. This will be achieved through demonstration of best practice and regulation to make sure that illegal practices aren’t happening and this needs to be everyone working together – the NGOs, governments and the private sector.

Last year you stopped working with 17 suppliers, is the number likely to grow?

We are still auditing. We found more noncompliance when we first started because when we started our audits in the shrimp feed supply chain, no-one had really been going onto vessels really anywhere in the world asking questions about whether all the workers have contracts, do they have payslips, how do we know how they were recruited into the system working hours etc. So we had more non-conformists when we started, but now there has been focus throughout the industry. For example we invited over 600 of our suppliers to an event on our code of conduct to let them know what we expect working with them; we have the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force working in Thailand now; the government inspecting labor conditions at sea using the navy; and we have port in/port out censors, verifying the documents, who goes out and who comes in on a fishing vessel – so all of these measures mean that base line is being lifted. So I hope we won’t go to too many more suppliers that have to be delisted. I would much rather work collaboratively with suppliers to improve their performance. But, that said, if there are deliberate examples of child labor of child labor or forced labor then we will not work with that supplier.

Greenpeace has been quite vocal in criticizing Thai Union recently, what do you say to this and how are you trying to placate them?

Greenpeace has their style of operation and that is to target the biggest player in any particular market and when it comes to canned tuna that is Thai Union. I don’t necessarily take it that we are the worst — there are commonalities such as the vessels we source from across the industry, but going back to the initial point, about us being global and a large player that is leading by example, I think the Greenpeace pressure is helping the whole industry to improve and we accept the voices of all the different NGOs whether that is Greenpeace along with WWF, the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), etc. But what I hope they will start to do in the short-term future is start to look at the positive changes being made and how they can be part of the solution and not just raising the problem.

What is the number one issue Thai Union intends on addressing in the next year?

There is no No. 1, but a series of No.1s. I think depending on which geography you’re looking at it might be different. Certainly the priority it to address illegal labor and illegal fishing wherever they exist in the supply chain, making sure we have full traceability and can verify the catch we’re selling and producing. I think on a local level it is helping the Royal Thai Government address the issues of illegal fishing but also particularly human trafficking.

Do you feel the Thai government is doing enough to crack down on slavery and other labor issues?

I think they are working very hard and consistently to get to a much better outcome, but human trafficking is such a complex issue it cannot be resolved by one group alone. So it can’t just be the Royal Thai Government, it needs to be surrounding governments, it needs to be the governments of our receiving export markets, it needs to be the business that operate here, it needs to be the NGOs. So I think more collaboration is needed, and focus on what the key issues are and how they can be resolved. In terms of the yellow card — the next decision is expected in July, I would hope the EU would recognize the progress the Royal Thai Government has made and the businesses have made in Thailand. But I think there is some virtue in the pressure of a yellow card and that continued pressure while we continue to change and improve. I strongly believe Thailand will come out as one of strongest countries in this region in their efforts to tackle illegal fishing.

What is the most important thing Thai Union customers should know about your sustainability strategy?

We are determined to tackle illegal fishing and illegal labor in the sector wherever we find it and our goal is to change seafood for good. I think we have a role to play leading by example but we also would welcome others to join us.