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The world’s top canned tuna firms are making “glacial progress” combatting modern slavery in their supply chains, an advocacy group said on Tuesday, warning that the coronavirus pandemic had left fishers in Asia-Pacific more vulnerable to exploitation.

Of the 35 biggest tuna companies and supermarkets surveyed by the U.K.-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), 29 had made public pledges on workers’ human rights.

But most firms had yet to take any action to stop modern slavery by implementing human rights policies – with oversight of recruitment almost non-existent, the report said.

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Six companies had policies to protect migrant workers but just one had evidence of having taken direct action, it added.

“The global fishing sector is rife with allegations of abuse – human trafficking, debt bondage ... and even murder,” BHRRC’s Pacific representative Amy Sinclair told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But despite continued high demand for canned tuna, our research found there had been glacial progress on action by leading brands when it comes to workers trapped in modern slavery in the Pacific,” she added.

The companies and supermarkets – representing more than 80 of the world’s largest canned tuna brands – procure much of their tuna from the Pacific region, which supplies about 60% of the world’s tuna, according to the World Bank.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased demand for tuna, as consumers worldwide have stocked-up on the pantry staple, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

As international borders have closed to curb the pandemic, modern slavery risks have heightened, with many fishers trapped at sea for longer periods – exposing them to heightened exploitation and abuse, the BHRRC report said.

While nearly half of respondents recognized that the pandemic exacerbated modern slavery risks, only a quarter had taken any action in response, it added.

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The Seafood Ethics Action Alliance and the Seafood Task Force, a group of seafood buyers and companies, were not immediately available for comment.

BHRRC said only one company – U.S. supermarket chain Kroger Co – disclosed forced labour in its supply chain, suggesting the others either do not have adequate practices in place to weed it out, or are not disclosing it when found.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated inequality and human misery in the seafood supply chains,” said Art Prapha, a senior advisor for anti-poverty charity Oxfam.

“Investors, workers, and activists have raised these concerns well before the pandemic, yet many companies continue to ignore these critical calls.”

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