US blocks imports linked to Taiwan-based fishing vessel

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By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Accounts of abusive conditions and forced labor have prompted the U.S. to ban imports from a Taiwan-based fishing vessel that reportedly has supplied the global tuna trading company that acquired Bumble Bee Seafoods this year.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued the order blocking imports from the Da Wang, the second such action by the Trump administration against a vessel in the Taiwanese shipping fleet since May.

It follows reports from Greenpeace East Asia of abuses in the second largest fleet in the world after China that partly led the agency to act this week under a U.S. law intended to keep out products tainted by forced labor.

The global fishing industry has been plagued by labor abuses for years, with workers subjected to brutal treatment often with little or no pay. Congress approved legislation providing the agency with additional tools to crack down on the industry in 2016 after an Associated Press investigation found that seafood caught by slaves in Southeast Asia was ending up in restaurants and markets around the United States.

The CBP announcement did not mention Bumble Bee or Taiwan-based FCF, which acquired the seafood company in February following the disclosure of a price-fixing scheme among canned tuna companies in the U.S.

Andy Shen, senior oceans adviser at Greenpeace USA, said FCF confirmed it had been supplied at least once in 2019 by the Da Wang and the company did not dispute the contention in a statement it issued with Bumble Bee.

"FCF remains in ongoing communication with Greenpeace and is in complete agreement that significant progress must be made to ensure responsible labor practices are followed on all tuna vessels," it said.

The statement said the companies will continue to “make the responsible recruitment and treatment of all workers an ongoing top priority” and “will not tolerate any human rights or environmental violations in our supply chain."

A spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions from the AP about its relationship to the ship cited by American agency.

Shen said the U.S. order “makes it clear to U.S. buyers of Bumble Bee or FCF supplied tuna that there are legal, financial, and reputational risks” to buying from companies that abuse their workers.

“The days of turning a blind eye are over," he said.

The Da Wang, which is flagged in the island nation of Vanuatu and registered to corporate owners in Taiwan, operates in the Pacific, often transferring its cargo to larger vessels so it can stay longer at sea.

Greenpeace took statements from migrant fishermen from Indonesia who worked on the Da Wang. In the statements, the fishermen said they were forced to work up to 22 hours per day, beaten and threatened by the crew, provided with little or poor quality food and had their wages withheld. Workers told the environmental and human rights organization that one man who was beaten was later found dead.

The administration's order was based on information that “reasonably indicates the use of forced labor, including physical violence, debt bondage, withholding of wages,” on board the vessel, according to a statement.

“The agency strongly encourages the trade community to closely monitor all parts of their supply chains to ensure fair business and labor practices,” said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of the Office of Trade.

“We cannot achieve our goal of creating and maintaining an ethical and humane U.S. supply chain without the support of our industry partners, but there will be consequences for those who fail to meet government standards,” Smith said.

Taiwan government investigators said they have started an investigation into how authorities handled the cases of the Da Wang and another vessel cited for abuses by Greenpeace East Asia, and are examining the issue of foreign workers on fishing boats operating under flags of convenience.

A news release from the Control Yuan, Taiwan’s powerful government watchdog agency, cited the allegations in a December 2019 Greenpeace report and noted that the Fisheries Agency had referred the case to prosecutors after an initial investigation. It questioned why the boats were allowed to leave port despite that. “Are the relevant departments ineffective in law enforcement?” it asked.

Shen said Greenpeace and other nongovernmental organizations are working with FCF on voluntary measures aimed at reducing abusive treatment. He said he hopes they will include an agreement to place impartial observers on all vessels.

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Associated Press videojournalist Johnson Lai in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to reflect that Congress gave U.S. Customs and Border Protection new powers in 2016, not 2015, to crack down on the industry.