Dateline Southeast Asia

Consumer awareness driving sea-change in modern slavery

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Silver Sea 2 was recently seized in Indonesia following allegations of illegal fishing and human trafficking
Silver Sea 2 was recently seized in Indonesia following allegations of illegal fishing and human trafficking
AsiaInspection has released an authoritative white paper on modern-day slavery, a practice which the auditing and inspection company called “a highly disturbing reality that is woven into nearly every supply chain around the world”.

It estimated the current scale of the problem at 27m slaves globally, the vast majority of whom are involved in agriculture and fishing, among other industries.

Needless to say, this means that the vast majority of global consumers are unwittingly benefiting from slave labour in one way or another namely through cheaply priced goods​,” said Sebastien Breteau, AsiaInspection’s chief executive.

The white paper was published to a backdrop of the release of 2,000 slave labourers in Thailand’s fishing industry so far this year after various media outlets highlighted their plight. 

Investigations led by Associated Press and The Guardian ​newspaper have prompted outrage among western consumers as a growing number cases of modern slavery have been revealed.

Yet the AsiaInspection white paper claimed the world is only slowly learning the true extent of the problem and how consumers are drive a sea change by demanding full transparency of supply chains.

Consumer awareness has begun to increase; cases such as those against Nestlé are being brought about by concerned consumers who do not want to support slave labour regardless of how far down the supply chain it is found​,” said Breteau.

Last month, a US appeal court ruled that Nestlé, along with ADM and Cargill, could be held to account for aiding and abetting child slavery in cocoa plantations. 

The case had been filed by three Malian individuals in July 2005 who claimed to have been trafficked as children into Côte D’Ivoire in the 1990s and forced to work unpaid on cocoa farms for 14 hours a day.

Driven by the goal to reduce costs in any way possible, the defendants allegedly supported the use of child slavery, the cheapest form of labour available​,” said senior circuit judge DW Nelson.

Judge Nelson added that the companies that controlled the cocoa market had a duty use their control to stop slavery. The companies deny any wrongdoing.

Underpinning the efforts of consumers, various laws have been adding necessary legal weight, such as the introduction earlier this year of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, which commits companies above a certain size to examine their entire supply chain for breaches.

Most people think slavery ended over a hundred years ago; in reality, it only became illegal globally in 2007, and worse still, it continues unabated​. 

“It is rampant in key developing markets like China, Pakistan and India—countries that are also the world’s production powerhouses. 

We believe that as consumer awareness grows, the pressure on companies and governments to take action will ensure we start to see the end of this dark stain of the twenty-first century​,” said Breteau.

Chemical pesticide use in Vietnam has increased 5,000-fold in two decades

Vietnam now uses 5,000 times more chemical pesticides in agriculture than it did in 1994, according to an academic.

Nguyen Vinh Truong, of Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry, said the import of pesticides, grass-killing sprays and plant disease killers increased 138%, 196% and 138% respectively between 2009-13 alone.

Speaking at an open forum comprising academics, government officials, farmers and NGOs, Associate Professor Truong added that this substantial increase in imports was proof that chemical pesticides were being overused, leading to soaring health problems and environmental pollution.

"Farmers in my community rely on pesticides and the pesticides help them to be feel safe with their crops. Some of them knew about the toxic influence but it wasn't a really big deal," said Nguyen Qua, a spring onion farmer in Hue, in central Vietnam.

According to a report by Hue-based Centre for Social Research and Development, 88% of farmers say they rely on pesticides for fast growth and strong productivity.

One-quarter of region’s deaths are from heart disease

A quarter of all deaths in Southeast Asian are the result of heart disease with an annual toll of 3.7m deaths, according to the World Health Organisation. 

One third of those deaths is premature, said Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO’s regional director.

"The good news is that the majority of premature deaths due to cardiovascular diseases can be prevented through simple measures​,” said Dr Singh on World Heart Day as she called on governments to promote healthier diets and increased exercise among their populations.

She added that more recognition needs to be given to the causes of heart disease among the region’s women, which are not widely recognised.

In Southeast Asia, she said, exposure to household air pollution from using solid fuel for cooking substantially increases the risk of heart disease. 

Almost 60 percent of households in the region use solid fuel for cooking.

WHO’s regional office has set a target for reducing premature mortality from cardiovascular disease and other non-communicable diseases by 25 percent by 2025.

Thai health ministry urges sugar sachet size reduction to 4g

Thailand’s health ministry has called on sugar manufacturers to reduce the size of sachets from 6g to 4g each in a bid to reduce consumption.

Health Minister Piyasakol Sakolsattayathorn said that over-consumption of sugar has contributed to an alarming rise in non-communicable diseases in the country.

Thais each consume an average of 30kg of sugar per year—the equivalent of more than 20 teaspoons a day, or three times the amount recommended by the World Health Organisation.

As well as urging sugar producers to reduce the size of their packs, Dr Piyasakol has also asked hotels to supply 4g sachets in their conference rooms.

Moreover, the health department will now serve only fruits and sugar-free sweets during its meetings, conferences and events, with 4g sugar sachets offered with drinks during breaks.

More agriculture funds needed despite Philippines government’s ‘radical progression’

The Philippines' agricultural sector has seen "radical progression​" since 2010 through government support, a senior agriculture department official has said. 

Speaking at an Apec Food Security Week event, Segfredo Serrano said budgetary support for agriculture had more than tripled from PHP20bn (US$430m) in 2010 to PHP64bn to 2013.

This year, President Aquino approved an P88-billion budget for the department.

"This substantial increase [of resources] has enabled us to reach more of our constituents​," Serrano said.

He admitted, however, that farmer groups are still pressing for a higher budget share, saying such calls are "true in the areas we still need to cover​".

Related topics: Policy, South East Asia, Supply chain, Seafood

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