Supporting Social Responsibility in Korea’s Seafood Industry

A growing partnership between O2 and Sajo Industries Ltd. has helped to reduce the environmental impact of longline tuna fishing operations; improved management of the world’s largest tuna fisheries; and facilitated the uptake of sustainable fishing practices across South Korea — one of the largest tuna industries in the world. Building on this success and a growing awareness of the social impacts of tuna fisheries, O2 and Sajo are now embarking on a new journey to support social responsibility in Korean tuna fisheries.

Characterized by extreme isolation, hazardous working conditions, and jurisdictional gaps in monitoring and enforcement, distant water fishing fleets are at particular risk of human rights violations.

In recent years, these human rights violations and exploitative labor conditions in distant water fishing fleets have been well-documented. This has helped to shine a light on the need to improve transparency and labor standards and protections for migrant workers across all distant water fishing fisheries — including in South Korea, which is one of the top five distant water fishing countries, accounting for 10% of all distant water fishing effort. Improving labor standards and addressing human rights impacts requires a collective effort across government, industry, NGOs and other Civil Society Organizations all playing a key role.

To meet existing international human rights standards to protect workers from human rights abuses, the Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries recently announced their Plan for Further Enhancement for Working Conditions of Migrant Fishers on Distant Water Fishing Vessels. This Plan is intended to strengthen the labor rights of migrant workers, while at the same time, seafood companies are beginning to adopt human rights due diligence (HRDD) and taking first steps to assess human rights impacts in their supply chains.

While HRDD in the South Korean seafood industry is nascent, Sajo is taking proactive efforts to integrate social responsibility into their broader sustainability objectives.

Sajo and its subsidiaries operate six business divisions including a deep sea fishing division, which provides tunas, including bluefin tunas, big-eye tunas, yellowfin tunas, albacore tunas, marlins and others to markets across the globe.

Sajo has a proven track-record in the environmental sustainability space. Working with O2, they have been an active participant in the Korean Roundtable for Sustainable Tuna Fishing, participated in a government pilot program on electronic monitoring, and are pursuing Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for 28 vessels in their Western Central Pacific Ocean and Eastern Pacific Ocean bigeye, yellowfin, and albacore tuna longline fisheries.

This positive work towards environmental sustainability is to be celebrated. Now, with a growing awareness of the critical gaps of environmentally-focused seafood certifications’ ability to protect fishers and fishworkers, Sajo has proactively chosen to work with O2 to initiate HRDD efforts. As part of this work, O2 was recently on Sajo vessels in Gamcheon Port to evaluate the human rights risks and areas of improvement for Sajo’s longline tuna fleet using the Social Responsibility Assessment (SRA) Tool for the Seafood Sector.

What is the Social Responsibility Assessment Tool for the Seafood Sector (SRA)

The SRA is a diagnostic, benchmarking, and risk-assessment tool for conducting human rights due diligence in seafood supply chains. The tool was developed by a broad coalition of experts across conservation and social responsibility fields, drawing on specific criteria from international standards and conventions to create a comprehensive set of indicators for social performance that work in large and small-scale fisheries. Want to learn more about its application? Check out our recent blog, Assessing and Addressing Social Risks in Fishery Improvement Projects.

Sajo is the first seafood company in Korea to conduct an SRA and work towards implementing its recommendations.

Supporting Social Responsibility in Korea’s Seafood Industry At Gamcheon Port, onboard vessel Oryong 315 — O2’s Korea program manager Doohyun Park led interviews with captains and crew, as part of the growing partnership and work with Sajo, to understand crew needs and opportunities to improve human rights aboard Sajo’s longline tuna vessels.

Supporting Social Responsibility in Korea’s Seafood Industry Direct engagement with fishers and fishworkers, captains, and vessel owners is a fundamental part of the SRA unlike some social audits. Interviews with workers provide a primary source of data that is often the most reliable and trustworthy account of social conditions on the water.

Supporting Social Responsibility in Korea’s Seafood Industry While the O2 team spent time on three vessels interviewing captains and both Korean and migrant crew, additional individuals could participate remotely over video interviews.

Supporting Social Responsibility in Korea’s Seafood Industry In addition to interviews, the work with Sajo included vessel inspections, document review, and other desk-based research to assess priority SRA indicators most relevant to Sajo’s supply chain.

Understanding the experiences of those working onboard the vessels is foundational to the SRA.

Despite logistical challenges, such as limited days in port and language barriers, Sajo supported O2 to engage directly with captains and crew through various approaches. These included remote interviews, flexibility around vessel site visits while Sajo vessels were docked in port, and leveraging local language interpreters to better communicate with migrant crew. This work with Sajo has helped to build a foundation on which to further social objectives in the fishery going forward.

Findings from the work so far have highlighted areas of improvement such as developing systems to monitor, remediate, and report on labor practices and recruitment, improved standards for wages and benefits for migrant crew, and better crew access and awareness of grievance mechanisms. While these findings are consistent with other reports across distant water fishing industry globally, they have been ground-truthed on the water. Now O2 and Sajo are working on a plan to address these findings and improve the overall social responsibility of its longline fisheries and their supply chains.

Sajo quote advocating for Ocean Outcomes and social responsiblity work in Korea