WASHINGTON — A coalition of Catholic groups led by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is in the middle of a postcard and online petition campaign to convince one of the United States’ largest food service distributors to ensure its fish supply is not tainted by labor trafficking.
The problem of forced labor, and even slave labor, on huge fishing vessels has long been a cause for concern, leading to this year’s “Labeling for Lent” campaign by the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking.
This year’s target is Sysco, which supplies food to many Catholic institutions.
“So many Catholic institutions, hospitals and school systems, and even some congregations and motherhouses, are supplied by Sysco,” said Jennifer Reyes Lay, executive director of U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking, a coalition member. “We make up a significant percentage of their business.”
“With the Lenten season, there’s some groups that use Sysco for the fish fries for their main source of seafood. That’s something that’s prevalent within the diocese,” said Christine Commerce, coordinator of the human trafficking task force in the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, another coalition member.
Commerce added, “Greater Orlando ranks third in the nation in calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. We see cases of both labor and sex trafficking here in central Florida.”
Sysco is not some unrepentant outlier when it comes to human trafficking.
“It is important to acknowledge Sysco’s efforts to begin addressing seafarers and fishers’ labor rights,” said a Labeling for Lent promotional piece issued by the coalition.
“Per Sysco’s 2019 social responsibility report, top priorities include ‘responsible sourcing to ensure fair treatment of workers and communities’ and ‘fair treatment of workers engaged in growing, harvesting, and processing products … with extensive programs in place to monitor performance of suppliers.’ The next step is to make these efforts widely known to Sysco customers so they can make informed and ethical selections when deciding which seafood products to purchase,” the coalition said.
In previous years, the coalition has targeted Costco and StarKist. Because of this, the coalition was contacted by the president of the National Fisheries Institute, the trade group representing the seafood industry, according to a March 25 email to Catholic News Service from Hilary Chester, associate director for anti-trafficking programs from the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services.
“While open to dialogue and listening to our concerns, the trade group fell short of our ask to help improve seafood company transparency via worker safe or slave free labeling,” Chester said.
That led to the coalition surveying its networks. “The results showed that over 99% of consumers want companies to take steps to engage in ethical and humane business practices, 98% want their seafood products to be labeled, and 97% said labels would influence their purchasing decisions,” according to Chester.
Tens of thousands of postcards were sent to coalition members for distribution to their networks. “A lot of us were anticipating conferences where we were going to hand out these postcards,” Reyes Lay said, but those conferences were canceled in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. So an online petition for the campaign has been established at https://www.sistersagainsttrafficking.org/take-action/labeling-for-lent.
“Our faith values do not allow for labor trafficking in the supply chain,” she added.
“A lot of people don’t want to know the suffering and pain involved in consumer goods,” said Larry Couch, director of the National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, another coalition member. “The fact that food is so cheap. … What was involved in bringing those bananas to the store?”
The fishing industry can be “horrendous,” Couch added. “People on the fishing boats are taken and held for months or for years — for a lifetime — all because of the market economy to deliver these goods cheaply.”
He said, “There’s not going to be a perfect answer, but we have to do what we can.”
Commerce recalled in the 1980s and ’90s when people acted on their outrage when they learned how many dolphins were being caught in tuna nets. “People started boycotting the tuna industry,” she said. Firms responded by “finding fisheries that didn’t catch dolphins” so they could label the tuna tins “dolphin safe,” she added.
Eventually, the federal government imposed a ban on tuna from countries whose fishing nets caught more dolphins than U.S. fisheries’ nets did, according to Commerce. “If we can have dolphin-safe tuna,” she said, “why can’t we have slave-free seafood?”