Dems to USDA: Reject efforts to weaken Buy American
U.S. Rep. George Miller of California has joined Congressman Faleomavaega Eni in urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to keep canned tuna made by child labor out of America’s school lunch program.
Congressional members say that their call is in response to ongoing efforts to weaken USDA’s Buy American domestic tuna requirements.
Miller is the Ranking Democratic Member on the U.S. House Committee on Education and Workforce and Faleomavaega is Ranking Democratic Member on the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.
In their letter dated Feb. 10 to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the two congressional members said, “We are writing to urge you to reject ongoing efforts to weaken the USDA's Buy American domestic tuna requirements”.
They pointed out a provision in the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 calls upon the USDA to submit a report to the Committees on Appropriations within 60 days regarding options to revise the Master Solicitation for Commodity Procurement to allow for the purchase of canned tuna for the school lunch program that has “less than 100% of the value of the tuna product be United States produced.”
“This request asks the USDA to provide a report with a roadmap for weakening the USDA’s Buy American provisions, which would, according to reputable human rights organizations, facilitate a business model that relies upon forced and child labor to process tuna that would be sold to America's school lunch program,” the letter states.
The reporting language was included in the bill due to the lobbying efforts of Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea — the “two canneries that outsource the cleaning of their tuna to low-wage countries like Thailand where human rights abuses, including forced labor, debt bondage, trafficking in labor and child labor have been found to be endemic in the fish processing industry,” the letter claims.
The letter went on to say Chicken of the Sea is owned by Thai Union, the world's largest tuna exporter and in a 2013 report, the watch dog group, FinnWatch found that Thai Union’s factories in the province of Samut Sakhon employed 14- to 17-year old migrants, and over half of all interviewed employees reported workplace harassment.
Bumble Bee is supplied, in part, by the Sea Value-owned Unicord factory in Thailand, in which Bumble owns a 10% interest. It, too, was found to employ child labor, and its management had also confiscated employee work papers, according to the letter.
The letter also cites a U.S. State Department 2013 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which says, “the cumulative risk of labor trafficking among Burmese migrant workers in the seafood industry in Samut Sakhon” is high, saying “57 percent of the 430 workers surveyed experienced conditions of forced labor.”
The letter further cited a U.S. Labor Department report issued in 2012 which states that in Thailand, "enforcement of child labor laws continues to be weak and the Government lacks current nationwide data on child labor. Children continue to be engaged in the worst forms of child labor, including hazardous activities in agriculture, and shrimp and seafood processing.”
“Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea have put forward supplier codes of conduct barring the use of trafficked or child labor,” the Congressman wrote to Vilsack. “These appear to be commitments in name only, divorced from reality on the ground...”
With USDOL on record and State Department reviewing a call to downgrade Thailand’s performance in its TIP report, “it is our sincere hope that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will not weaken Buy America provisions when submitting to Congress potential ways to change the procurement process for America’s school lunch program,” the letter says.
It also says the reason for weakening the Buy American requirements is to provide for competition in the USDA's purchase of tuna for the school lunch program, but there will soon be competition from both StarKist and Tri Marine International.
Vilsack was also informed StarKist operates a tuna cannery in American Samoa, and is authorized to supply tuna for the USDA school lunch programs, but it had not for two years while improvements were made to address Food and Drug Administration requirements.
Additionally, Tri Marine will soon begin production in American Samoa, as it is making a $50 million investment to reconstruct the former Chicken of the Sea facility on the island. By December 2014 it will also be able to supply canned tuna under the current Buy American requirements.
“Thus, the argument that the Buy American requirements in the Master Solicitation need to be weakened as a means to ensure competition lacks merit,” Miller and Faleomavaega wrote, adding there is no reason for the school lunch program to encourage “the outsourcing of tuna fish processing to countries which tolerate child and trafficked labor, and which pay wages that are a fraction of those paid in American Samoa.”
For background information Vilsack was told the territory’s economy since 1954 has been linked to the U.S. tuna fishing and processing industries. Further the tuna industry constitutes 80% of the private sector employment in the Territory, and sales to the U.S. government are an essential market for American Samoa's local manufacturers and critical to maintaining the viability of this irreplaceable industry.
“Without the tuna canning industry, American Samoa's already devastatingly high 35% unemployment rate would more than double and the economy would nearly collapse,” it says.
“Since 80% of the labor in a can of tuna is tied to the cleaning and processing of the fish, companies can fatten their bottom line by going outside of the U.S. and its territories such as American Samoa,” the letter says.
For example, Chicken of the Sea began outsourcing in 2009 when it closed its operations in American Samoa and shifted the cleaning of its tuna to its parent company in Thailand. In 2012, Bumble Bee did the same, closing its operations in Puerto Rico after 50 years, and outsourcing its work to Thailand and other low-wage countries which tolerate the use of child labor or fail to protect labor rights, such as freedom of association.
In preparing its report for Congressional Appropriations, the two Congressmen asked that USDA:
• Evaluate and consider the fact that by the end of 2014 there will be two sources of canned tuna which will be compliant with the 100% Buy America provisions in the Master Solicitation for Commodity Procurement, thereby assuring competition in the marketplace;
• Evaluate the impact on employment in American Samoa from reducing the 100% Buy American provisions and allowing tuna loins to be processed in lower wage countries;
• Assess documented human and worker rights abuses associated with cleaning and processing of tuna loins in countries such as Thailand and elsewhere that would be used as a source for imports by Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea or others for subsequent canning in the United States;
• Compare the jobs created in the US and its territories from processing and canning tuna under a 100% Buy American requirement, versus the jobs created from importing frozen tuna loins from outside the US and then canning these in the US for the USDA school lunch program.