Organizers Say Quaint Baltimore Seafood Business Masks Shocking Labor Abuses

Bruce Vail August 2, 2017

Demonstration at the labor department offices in Lampung, Indonesia in 2015. (IUF)

Phillips Seafood is a Bal­ti­more-based com­pa­ny that trades on its his­toric con­nec­tions to the Chesa­peake Bay blue crab fish­ery. The sig­na­ture dish at its restau­rants is the famed Mary­land-style crab cake, and its din­ing rooms fea­ture mod­els of antique fish­ing boats and roman­ti­cized images of the bay water­men cul­ture that is fad­ing fast. But orga­niz­ers say it’s most­ly fake — a cov­er sto­ry for a rapa­cious, glob­al­ized busi­ness that preys on poor Indone­sian women to extract rich prof­its for its U.S. owners.

That’s the sto­ry being told by a multi­na­tion­al fed­er­a­tion of labor orga­ni­za­tions com­mit­ted to help­ing those Indone­sian work­ers, accord­ing to Hiday­at Green­field, the Asia-Pacif­ic region­al sec­re­tary of the Inter­na­tion­al Union of Food, Agri­cul­tur­al, Hotel, Restau­rant, Cater­ing, Tobac­co and Allied Work­ers’ Asso­ci­a­tions (IUF). A loose alliance of unions in 129 coun­tries around the world, the IUF is spread­ing the word to Phillips’ U.S. cus­tomers about the company’s human rights abus­es in Indonesia. 

Last month, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the IUF’s U.S. affil­i­ate, Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) union, were in Ocean City, Md. hand­ing out infor­ma­tion­al pam­phlets at a Phillips restau­rant where the com­pa­ny is cur­rent­ly enjoy­ing its sea­son­al bonan­za of busi­ness from beach­go­ers at the resort town.

The facts of the labor rights strug­gle in Indone­sia are shock­ing, although not unknown in the region, accord­ing to Green­field. Phillips oper­ates a crab­meat pro­cess­ing plant in the city of Lam­pung, strate­gi­cal­ly locat­ed near the fish­eries of the Java Sea and near­by waters. Orga­niz­ers say the facil­i­ty relies most­ly on low-paid female work­ers orga­nized by the Lam­pung Food­work­ers Fed­er­a­tion to shell crabs by hand and pre­pare the food for ship­ment to the Unit­ed States.

Over the last four years, Green­field says, the com­pa­ny has resist­ed labor law reforms being intro­duced by the gov­ern­ment, and has recent­ly stepped up efforts to fur­ther cut labor costs with so-called mini-plants” designed to exploit rur­al work­ers even more thor­ough­ly than urban workers.

We say mini-plants, mini-hell,’” says Green­field. The mini-plants are typ­i­cal­ly set up in rur­al areas, and the work of crab pick­ing farmed out to local women on a short-term, piece-work basis. Usu­al­ly returned to Lam­pung on the back of a motor­bike,” the crab­meat receives final pro­cess­ing at the Lam­pung plant before being shipped to the Unit­ed States, Green­field explains.

You can’t main­tain mod­ern qual­i­ty and hygiene stan­dards when you out­source like that,” he says. The sys­tem is a threat to the health and well-being of the work­ers, and to Phillips cus­tomers back home [in the Unit­ed States].”

And the cus­tomers are not just at the Ocean City restau­rant. Phillips owns and oper­ates five oth­er restau­rants, as well as a grow­ing fran­chise that is spread to 10 air­ports or large casi­nos across the coun­try. Fur­ther­more, the com­pa­ny is mar­ket­ing its own brand of canned and pre­pared seafood to gro­cery dis­trib­u­tors nation­al­ly. The com­pa­ny is secre­tive, pub­lish­ing no infor­ma­tion about its rev­enues or prof­itabil­i­ty: Sev­er­al requests to Phillips cor­po­rate head­quar­ters from In These Times for addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion or com­ment were ignored.

It’s no sur­prise that Phillips doesn’t want to talk about its South Asia seafood oper­a­tions — few inter­na­tion­al seafood cor­po­ra­tions do, accord­ing to Tim Ryan, Asia region­al pro­gram direc­tor at the Wash­ing­ton, D.C‑based work­er advo­ca­cy group Sol­i­dar­i­ty Cen­ter. The world has been scan­dal­ized by expos­es of the Asian seafood industry’s tol­er­ance of slav­ery, traf­fick­ing in migrants and young girls, abu­sive work­ing con­di­tions and sub-pover­ty wage prac­tices, Ryan says. There aren’t many peo­ple who want to be asso­ci­at­ed pub­licly with that.”

Accord­ing to Ryan, some of the worst prac­tices have been exposed in Thai­land, where Phillips is also active. A recent report from Bloomberg Busi­ness News Ser­vice list­ed the Unit­ed States, Ecuador, Mex­i­co, Indone­sia, India, the Philip­pines, Thai­land, and Viet­nam as loca­tions of Phillips pro­cess­ing plants.

Labor prob­lems at the Lam­pung Phillip’s plant real­ly start­ed to esca­late about four years ago, Green­field reports, when union mem­bers began agi­tat­ing to be rec­og­nized as full-time work­ers, rather than as casu­al work­ers. Due to labor law reforms under way in Indone­sia now, he explains, recog­ni­tion would have allowed the women to qual­i­fy for par­tic­i­pa­tion in the country’s nation­al health care sys­tem. Accord­ing to Green­field, Phillips wouldn’t agree, although some of the work­ers have been per­ma­nent employ­ees for 10 years or more. Nor would Phillips agree to union recog­ni­tion for Fed­erasi Seikat Buruh Lam­pung (FSBL), the Food­work­ers Fed­er­a­tion with col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments at ten oth­er seafood proces­sors in the city, Green­field says.

The labor law reforms appear to have been the impe­tus for the mini-plants. Right now, we are talk­ing about three sheds in the for­est, but they are talk­ing about two more mini-plants,” Green­field explains. By out­sourc­ing the crab shelling to work to the mini-plants, the hours of oper­a­tion at the main plant can be adjust­ed so that they are irreg­u­lar, there­fore allow­ing the com­pa­ny to main­tain almost all the work­ers as casu­als, accord­ing to Green­field. The sta­tus quo is intol­er­a­ble, he says. Our goal is to close the mini-plants.”

Although the labor con­flict seems far away, it does have an impact local­ly in the home city of Phillips’ cor­po­rate head­quar­ters. The com­pa­ny has been a main­stay of the Bal­ti­more scene for decades with its promi­nent restau­rant in the city’s Inner Har­bor tourist dis­trict. In the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty, Phillips is a long-time sup­port­ing mem­ber of Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion of Mary­land. It does not seem like a coin­ci­dence, then, that the Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion was promi­nent this year in the cam­paign to kill a $15 min­i­mum wage law, a cam­paign that impact­ed its own food servers and all the oth­er work­ing poor in Bal­ti­more — and beyond.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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