Slavery and the Costco Halo

Slave Vessels - Photo Credit AP

Slave Vessels – Photo Credit AP

On Thursday the Los Angeles Times reported a Costco member sued the retailer on allegations that it knowingly sold frozen prawns that were the product of slave labor.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, alleges that Costco was aware that the prawns it purchased from its Southeast Asian producers came from a supply chain dependent on human trafficking and other illegal labor abuses.

The suit, which seeks class-action status, named seafood producers Charoen Pokphand Foods Public Co. in Thailand and C.P. Food Products Inc. in Maryland as defendants.

Based on claims of unfair competition and fraudulent practices, the lawsuit seeks a court order stopping Costco from selling prawns without a label describing its “tainted” supply chain and from buying, distributing and selling products they know or suspect to be derived from slave labor or human trafficking.

Read the rest of the article here.

If the allegations are true, the Costco halo with regard to labor relations should dim.

More than any other large retailer, Costco is in the good graces of members of the progressive community for its labor practices.

In January 2014, President Obama choose a Costco in Lanham, Maryland to advocate for an increase in the federal minimum wage because the retailer is “acting on its own to pay its workers a fair wage.”

“To help make that case, look no further than Costco,” said Thomas Perez, secretary of labor at the event. “Costco has been proving for years that you can be a profitable company while still paying your employees a fair wage. They’ve rejected the old false choice that you can serve the interests of your shareholders, or your workers, but not both.”

“Labor union officials and backers agree,” according to an article in USA Today, “saying other retailers, such as Walmart, could learn from the way Costco treats its workers and the results.”

Costco’s example is on the left end of the retail spectrum, and is set up to be taken down a notch. Slavery in its supply chain is nothing new as their shelves have long been stocked with canned tuna derived from a Thailand based fishing trade that sources from slave vessels. The Costco halo has protected it… perhaps until now.

When in high school I enjoyed having a tuna melt sandwich at Ross’ Restaurant in Bettendorf after working on the stage crew. The warm tuna salad, with a slice of melted cheese, served on toasted bread was sensually appealing and delicious. We are not in high school any more.

We live in a society where the mere mention of symbols of 19th century slavery creates cacophonous public debate. Just look at the recent news cycles regarding use of the Confederate battle flag in public places. It was a media firestorm with the defining act arguably being removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds. Modern day slavery? Barely a word about it.

Whether Costco’s association with slaves in its supply chain will become an issue among its members is uncertain at best. As a society don’t like to take down the symbols in our hagiography, even if all large-scale retailers, including Costco, are far from saintly. We take comfort in developing patterns and relationships with our retailers, creating a refuge from a world that seems increasingly hostile. “I like this brand,” a consumer might say.

The argument comes down to the face of the farmer. When we discover the farmer is a slave, it requires action on our part. That is, unless we concede the world is so screwed up there is no hope.

I’ve never eaten a prawn, and don’t plan to start. If the lawsuit is successful, I’m not sure it will matter among prawn-eaters or other Costco members. However, progressives should care, and stop referring to Costco as a model for labor relations until it pledges, and lives up to the pledge, to take slavery out of its supply chain.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

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