[UPDATE: This post contained numerous inaccuracies at time of posting: Thai Union apparently had issues with a single one of their own suppliers, whose fish was only used in pet food. Darden was not aware of the allegations at the time of sourcing from Thai Union, and since they only source farm-harvested shrimp from them, they had not knowingly sourced slave-labor harvested product. We regret the error. A further statement from Darden Restaurants can be found below.]
Last year, reports came out that seafood being sold by numerous outlets in the US and the UK had been sourced by Southeast Asian companies engaging in literal slave labor. A new AP report indicates that Darden Restaurants, owners of Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze, and formerly Red Lobster, have been cheerfully sourcing from one company guilty of the practices even after the initial story became public.
The AP report clearly indicates that it wasn't simply one company engaging in this practice; though originally reported as a problem with Charoen Pokphand Foods off the coast of Thailand, AP reporters talked to dozens of Burmese slaves in Indonesia associated with a company called Thai Union. The conditions detailed are particularly brutal, describing 20-22 hour workdays (not a typo), no days off, and regular beatings. Collectively, it's some of the worst inhumanity the world has to offer.
The US pays lip service to caring about this issue, but (unsurprisingly) really doesn't do anything to actively combat the problem of human trafficking in seafood sourcing. If you were looking for the single most depressing paragraph you will see this week, here you go:
The U.S. counts Thailand as one of its top seafood suppliers, and buys about 20 percent of the country's $7 billion annual exports in the industry. Last year, the State Department blacklisted Thailand for failing to meet minimum standards in fighting human trafficking, placing the country in the ranks of North Korea, Syria and Iran. However, there were no additional sanctions.
This would be bad enough, but then there's the fact that at least one US company well aware of the allegations has continued to do business as usual with Thai Union. Enter Darden Restaurants, a company that has received over 250 metric tons of seafood from Thai Union since 2014, according to US Customs Data. Even when the company's board was taken over by hedge fund Starboard Value, Darden continued to source from Thai Union. In fact, Darden was so enamored of Thai Union that they had previously awarded them numerous top intra-company awards for vendor excellence. Let's pause for a second so we can all go throw up.
It's perhaps unsurprising that Darden, a company that has frequently done everything in its power to fight both wage increases and paid sick leave legislation, wouldn't give even a semblance of a crap about the well-being of those involved in its operations.
It has to be a little shocking, though, that they gave so few fucks that even after the news was out that their supply chain had graphic, brutal human rights violations attached to it, they did absolutely nothing. No word yet on whether Olive Garden's new slogan is going to be "When You're Here, You're Supporting Slavery," but time will tell.
From Darden Restaurants:
Thai Union, one of the world's largest seafood providers, is a long-standing, valued partner who shares our commitment to ethical business conduct and fair labor practices, and we applaud their decision to immediately terminate their relationship with a single supplier identified in the AP story. In fact, Thai Union terminated the relationship with the supplier in November 2014. It should also be noted that the supplier only provided fish for Thai Union's pet food supply chain. As a result, our company had no visibility to this supplier and never received product from Thai Union that was originally sourced by this supplier.
The issue of human and workplace rights is one we take very seriously. In order to successfully combat labor issues in the seafood industry, it is crucial that all stakeholders—including public, private and social sectors—work together as one team. We will continue to do that, and we will continue to work to ensure that our suppliers meet all applicable laws and regulations, as well as our high expectations.
Image via ljh images/Shutterstock.