The team monitored the ships by satellite to ports, then to determine who was cleaning, processing and freezing the catch for possible export, we tracked Chinese fishing vessels as they transported their catch to refrigerated ships and transported them to ports in China. where a ship’s trucks were filmed by our investigators and tracked to processing plants. And that’s when we discovered that forced labor is as much of a problem on land as it is at sea.
We have documented the use of Uyghur and North Korean labor to process seafood from Chinese vessels linked to human trafficking and illegal fishing. Then we used bills of lading and other customs information, product packaging, press releases and company annual reports to track seafood to grocery stores, restaurants and catering companies in Europe and in the United States, as well as federal contract databases to link imported seafood – everything. from pollock to salmon to haddock – to purchases by American and European governments.
The U.S. government is one of the largest institutional buyers of seafood, with purchases of more than $400 million in 2022. The survey found that a portion of this spending goes to importers who sourcing fish from processing plants using Uyghur labor, in violation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Act, which passed almost unanimously in December 2021, and requires U.S. Customs and Border Protection to block the importation of goods produced by Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province. In recent years, the Chinese government has systematically subjected these groups to forced labor programs in factories across the country, monitored by uniformed guards, in dormitories surrounded by barbed wire. (China’s Foreign Ministry declined to answer questions about the use of Uyghurs and forced labor in seafood processing plants. But in response to the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law, the ministry issued a statement calling the allegations of forced labor “nothing but vicious lies concocted by anti-China forces.”)
Since 2022, Customs and Border Protection has seized more than $1 billion of these goods, including those related to industries like cotton, solar panels, and tomatoes, which were previously known to be heavily exploited by Uyghurs . However, seafood imports have largely escaped control, in part because the factories that rely on these workers are located far from Xinjiang, a western region of the country that is among the furthest from the sea on the planet. The Chinese government has instead forcibly transferred tens of thousands of these workers, loading them onto trains, planes and buses, and sending some to seafood processing plants in Shandong province, a hub of fishing on the east coast. These findings were based on Outlaw Ocean Project reporting using cellphone images from factories and other locations in China posted on social media, seafood company newsletters mentioning meetings with government officials to resolve labor shortages, state media reports and more than three dozen worker testimonies. and direct monitoring of certain plants. (For more detailed sourcing, see the Outlaw Ocean Project website.)
The investigation found that more than $50 million worth of salmon was supplied to soup kitchens and federally funded programs to feed low-income seniors by importers who source from plants using of Uyghur labor. This is not the only species produced by forced labor that ended up on plates in the United States. More than $20 million worth of pollock, mostly in the form of fish sticks, was shipped to the National School Lunch Program and other federal food assistance programs. The National School Lunch Program feeds children in more than 100,000 public schools nationwide. More than $140 million worth of cod, salmon and halibut were delivered to commissaries and cafeterias at hundreds of U.S. military bases at home and abroad. Fish cakes worth thousands of dollars were paid to federal inmates in Wisconsin. The U.S. government even donated more than $300,000 worth of canned pink salmon to Ukraine to support the war effort, some of it supplied by an American company named OBI Seafoods which, according to the investigation, supplies from a Chinese factory using Uyghurs. (OBI Seafoods did not respond to requests for comment.)
By email, the Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), a member of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which monitors human rights in the country, said he is proud that Uighur law is strictly enforced by Customs and Border Protection , including the recent addition of 24 companies. who use forced labor to the restricted list. He added, in response to the findings of this investigation: “I hope that all allegations of forced labor, particularly for products purchased by American taxpayers, will be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. »
In separate reports released over the past two years, the U.S. State Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have ranked China among the countries most likely to engage in illegal labor practices in the seafood sector: forced labor through debt bondage, salary deductions, excessive labor practices. hours of work, beatings of deckhands and confiscation of passports, as well as abandonment of crew in port and general neglect. In one case, we received video from Filipino sailors who filmed aboard a Chinese ship where they said they were being held captive. “Please save us,” said one of the boat’s sailors. Han Rong 368 » pleaded in a July 2020 video, recorded on his cellphone from the Indian Ocean, near Sri Lanka. “We have to go to the hospital,” he said. “Please, we’re already sick here.” The captain won’t send us to the hospital. (The agency that placed these workers on the ship, PT Puncak Jaya Samudra, did not respond to requests for comment.)
The Defense Department, which runs military bases, and the Justice Department, which runs the Federal Bureau of Prisons, declined to comment on purchasing seafood from U.S. importers linked to processing plants in China using labor from Xinjiang. Allan Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the USDA, which oversees the national school lunch program, said: “The USDA requires that our seafood comes from U.S. waters on U.S.-flagged vessels and is produced in establishments approved by the U.S. Department of Commerce Seafood Inspection Program. .”
The U.S. government is by no means the sole purchaser of seafood from these vessels and processing facilities in violation of the import ban. The investigation found that more than 6,000 tons of seafood from the plants since June 2022 has gone to U.S. restaurant chains, grocery stores and foodservice companies, including Walmart, Costco, Kroger and Sysco.