The Associated Press released reports from a year-long investigation which found slaves, mostly from Burma, were being forced to catch fish in Indonesia under horrific conditions for little or no pay. Some of those involved were kept in cages while on shore to make sure they could not escape.
Their catch was shipped to Thailand before being distributed to a number of buyers, including one linked to Thai Union Manufacturing. The seafood processing company exports cat food products, including two commonly found in New Zealand – Nestle’s Fancy Feast and Mars brand Iams.
Fancy Feast is widely stocked in supermarkets, and Iams is a high-end product sold in specialist pet stores and vet clinics.
A statement from Thai Union Manufacturing has been widely reported. In it, the company calls the use of slave labour “utterly unacceptable” and says the supplier who passed on the slave-caught fish was “terminated” immediately.
"Consumers can rest assured that our current products are not tainted with the alleged trade supplier," Thai Union says. "This is to prove that Thai Union takes the issue of human rights violation extremely seriously."
The New Zealand Herald quoted Antoinette Laird, corporate public relations director for Pak'nSave and New World operator Foodstuffs, who said the company was taking the revelations seriously.
"Foodstuffs in no way, shape or form has ever or will ever knowingly stock a product that is the result of illegal business practices or slave labour," Ms Laird said. "With regard to Nestle and its Fancy Feast products stocked in our stores, we are aware that Nestle are working through their supply chain to identify any potential unlawful practices."
The Herald also reached a spokeswoman from Countdown, which also stocks Fancy Feast. She told the news outlet that Countdown was speaking with Nestle to better understand the situation.
The scandal appears to have not yet hit Fancy Feast or Iams particularly hard on social media yet, although Fancy Feast posted the below statements in response to two comments on Facebook.
Margaret Stuart, corporate and external relations manager for Nestle Oceania, says the issue is highly complex as the supply chain in question involves multiple ports and fishing vessels operating in international waters. She repeated Nestle's statement from Facebook, adding that the company's main seafood supplier in Thailand had begun working with an independent consulting firm to trace products through the different tiers of its supply chain to the ports of origin in Southeast Asia.
"Such data will enable us to understand the scope of any potential labour concerns in our supply chain better, and help us to target our efforts to address any labour issues which are found more directly."
Mars New Zealand corporate affairs manager Vicki Hamilton says Mars acquired the Iams brand in August last year, and is still in the process of "integrating" the brands and applying Mars' policies, procedures and systems. She says this includes its commitment to respecting human rights in its supply chain.
Hamilton says Mars does not tolerate forced labour in any aspect of its supply chain, calling the practice "deplorable." She says the company's corporate commitment to sourcing sustainably-produced raw materials includes seeking to ensure that human rights are respected throughout our supply chain, and its supplier code of conduct expressly forbids forced labour or labour which does not meet the International Labour Organisation (ILO) guidelines.
Mars monitors the human rights practices of its direct suppliers, she says, scrutinising them through independent risk assessments, third party supplier audits and/or supplier self-assessments.
"We are concerned about the potential for human rights abuses to occur in areas of our multi-tiered supply chain where we do not have direct visibility," Hamilton says.
She supplied the below list of actions Mars has taken to "increase visibility" across its fish supply chain since the slavery story broke, saying Mars has:
- Reached out to its Thailand-based fish processors to gain their assistance in establishing greater transparency into their sourcing.
- Met with the ILO to benefit from their recommendations on how enterprises can best contribute to improvement of the situation in Thailand.
- Engaged with NGO partners to integrate their knowledge and experience into our efforts to further compliance with its code of conduct throughout our entire supply chain.
- Begun development of additional policies and procedures to strengthen its corporate supplier code of conduct, including a recently-launched human rights policy.
- Prioritised that in 2015, Mars will conduct a human rights impact assessment of its fish supply chain in Thailand in consultation with local stakeholders.
Based on the findings of the impact assessment, Hamilton says, Mars will take further action and engage with its business partners, civil society and the Thai government with a goal of ensuring that human rights are protected and respected.
On Facebook, Iams made the below statement to a member of the public.