Too often politics brings out the worst in us. This was certainly the case this week when a lobbyist for a Korean company, Dongwon Industries (owner of Starkist), tried to preserve their monopoly by leveling false allegations about Bumble Bee Foods using fish cleaning facilities in Thailand that employ child labor. The lobbyist, Jim Bonham, stated that “most consumers don’t want to buy child labor tuna,” among other egregious assertions. Congressman Eni F.H. Faleomaveaga, representing American Samoa, echoed Bonham’s false statements yesterday in an op-ed that ran in The Hill.
Not only are these allegations false, they are a cynical attempt, timed to a congressional action, to preserve Dongwon Industries’ monopoly of providing tuna to American schools. They aim to prevent competition from entering the market – competition that would reduce prices for government agencies and increase the presence of a healthy school lunch option for our children.
It is true that Bumble Bee Foods uses companies in Thailand to clean some of our tuna. However, it is absolutely slanderous to suggest that we use facilities that violate child labor standards. How do we know this? All of Bumble Bee’s suppliers must sign a statement saying they don’t use forced, trafficked or underage labor and we conduct regular onsite visits, along with paying for audits by independent third-party social audit firms for additional layers of oversight to ensure that this is the case. On top of our own due diligence, our supplier factories in the U.S. and overseas are routinely audited for workplace standards by some of the most respected international labor groups.
Bonham surely knows this; after all, his client utilizes the very same companies that we do. Yes, that’s right, the very facilities they are alleging traffic in child labor are regularly utilized by Dongwon Industries and other tuna companies. We would expect that they have applied the same standards we have in our utilization of these facilities to ensure that no child labor is being utilized.
The truly sad part about this distraction is that Dongwon’s efforts are nothing more than a cynical attempt to preserve the monopoly position their Starkist brand has in American schools. Their efforts have nothing to do with the actual legislation that would reduce the restrictions on Buy American standards and allow Bumble Bee tuna, caught by U.S. vessels and cleaned overseas, but processed in our U.S. facility in California, to qualify as a Buy American product.
Currently, Starkist enjoys a monopoly based on the provisions of Buy American tuna. Ironically, it enjoys this monopoly without having a single mainland U.S. processing facility. Starkist has built this monopoly solely based on its presence in American Samoa. By operating their facility in American Samoa they are able to use exemptions to the Nicholson and Jones Acts that, collectively, exempt the island from the U.S. ban on foreign commercial fishing vessels from offloading at U.S. ports and also the U.S. import tariffs of up to 35 percent on processed fish. Despite these generous exemptions to American Samoa, the island remains one of only two U.S. territories that are exempt from federal minimum wage standards and OSHA workplace requirements.
So there you have it, a Korean company with no mainland U.S. facilities has been able to develop a monopoly on the $20 million market of selling tuna to the government based on Buy American requirements. That same company, seeking to preserve its monopoly, has tried to distract lawmakers with false allegations that its competitors use facilities that use child labor (the same facilities that they use).
They hope that this will distract people from realizing that the monopoly they enjoy on the Buy American product that they are trying to preserve is entirely based on a foreign company using government exemptions from tariffs, minimum wage laws and other federal regulations enjoyed by the Territory of American Samoa and that the elimination of the monopoly will actually result in lower costs to our government and more healthy tuna on school lunch menus for our kids.
We have more faith in our government and know that they will see this attempt for what it is and will take the appropriate actions based on the facts and not the outright false allegations being made by Dongwon’s lobbyists.
Lischewski is president and CEO of Bumble Bee Foods.