How do you turn around a whole culture within a workplace, and even an entire industry – especially an industry that’s generally averse to change? It’s something that is being achieved within Thai Union, one of the select group of the world’s heavyweight seafood producers, with Dr Darian McBain as the very visible driver of change, not only within the company but across the wider industry.
Less than a decade ago, Thailand’s fishing industry, and by association, seafood group Thai Union, was embroiled in a storm of devastating negative publicity as the longstanding issue of slavery at sea broke the surface and Thailand was downgraded to the lowest level in the US Trafficking in Persons Report. That was followed in April 2015 by the EU handing Thailand a yellow card for failing to address IUU fishing.
Seeking to push forward the process of reform throughout its business that had already been put in motion, Thai Union brought in Darian McBain, an Australian with a background in engineering and already with a track record behind her of involvement in the sustainability and ethics of palm oil, timber, health service procurement and more.
“Thai Union had actually started the process of putting sustainability and innovation at the heart of the business before the crisis hit the Thai seafood industry in 2015. I had just completed my PhD in social impacts in global supply chains when I was approached about the job at Thai Union,” she explained.
“There were some existing negative perceptions of the industry, but when I joined I found a company very willing to change, but needing someone to drive the work.”
She started by listening, embedding herself in the business to get an understanding of its priorities in developing a strategic sustainability plan, which became the SeaChange strategy. This has overarching goals of ensuring fisheries remain sustainable, that workers are safe and legally employed, and that the vessels Thai Union buys from operate legally and responsibly.
Change took place with remarkable rapidity, and she commented that the process felt like a challenge, albeit with civil society partners and NGOs providing support.
“While there was a strong external focus to showcase progress on improvements in vital topics, such as forced labour and modern slavery, IUU fishing and traceability, there was an internal appetite and willingness to learning and change. In hindsight, the changes that we implemented happened very quickly and staff at so many levels were supportive. I was very fortunate because Thai Union has a strong commitment to sustainability embedded in the business, led by the Group’s President and CEO Thiraphong Chansiri.”
Darian McBain added that the speed of progress in bringing about initiatives such as SeaChange, the Vessel Code of Conduct and the Ethical Migrant Recruitment Policy is down to commitment – and an urgent need for change.
“There was also a conscious choice to show leadership rather than follow and that gives you the ability to move quickly when there is a pressing need,” she said.
The challenges facing Thai Union as a major player in the industry are inevitably linked to those of the Thai seafood sector as a whole, even though she points out that many of the industry’s shortcomings that have been under the media spotlight tend to apply more to smaller, less well managed companies than to Thai Union – and as the largest fish in the pond, the company has pushed to show leadership.
Thai Union has brought in satcoms technology providing opportunities for distant waters crews to communicate with home, a move that the Thai authorities have since made a requirement across the industry, and the group has also been among the first in Thailand to scrap the system of recruitment fees for processing plant staff, essentially a form of debt bondage.
Present and future challenges
Darian McBain commented that there have been challenges to deal with when observers and commentators have failed to draw distinctions between Thailand as a nation and Thai Union as a company.
“For example, government to government interactions, such as on the EU IUU yellow card or US TIP report, were often assumed to be about Thai Union, although the seafood industry is so much larger than any one company,” she said.
“Most of the issues being dealt with are global in nature and to focus only on Thailand misses the opportunity for a wholistic approach. This is why our sustainability strategy SeaChange covers all of Thai Union’s operations and not only those in Thailand. In addition, Thai Union’s largest market is the US followed by the EU and so it makes sense to engage customers, consumers, regulators and civil society in those countries, as well as in Thailand.”
Thai Union’s determined shift towards sustainability in its activities takes a wider view alongside dealing with challenges closer to home – and the broad approach includes its involvement with SeaBOS, which brings together a group of the world’s leading seafood producers to address the problems the sector faces as a whole.
“Thai Union were early supporters of the initiative,” Darian McBain said, adding that she had been impressed by the concept when she had first read about the initiative in 2015.
“We already had sustainability as a key focus and knew that we needed our competitors and supply chain partners to be working in a similar way to be more effective. Being an early adopter also meant that I got to attend the very first meeting in the Maldives. It’s great to see other examples of innovative work which I think drives us to become better companies in how we operate. SeaBOS has quite a few concrete goals. While it may not seem like much when you read through them, they amount to significant changes in practice. If the member companies can deliver against all of these objectives, the seafood industry will be showing true ocean stewardship.”
Taking a long-term view, Darian McBain has no doubts that climate change is going to bring challenges, and these are likely to range from the movement of migratory fish species such as tuna, the impacts on aquaculture from extreme weather events, risk mitigation at Thai Union’s factories or contributing to reducing GHG emissions to limit global warming.
“Innovation in alternative proteins, including for human consumption and for feed sources for aquaculture, and even innovative aquaculture practices, is bringing excitement to the industry,” she said, adding that the Covid-19 pandemic has already provided a foretaste of the need to adapt and work differently.
“We have seen some significant challenges in supply chains and the people who we rely on to grow and deliver our produce. But we have also seen a new era of innovation and science,” she said.
“From artificial intelligence and digital identities to aid ending modern slavery, to factories of the future and driverless deliveries for supply chains, to alternative proteins and lab grown meats, the roaring 2020s hold a lot of promise.”
The role as Thai Union’s Global Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability was a dream job for someone who relishes getting to grips with a challenge as well as crossing cultural boundaries.
“It has called on all of my past experience as well as insights I learned during my PhD studies. I also had to learn about Thai culture to be able to engage. One of Thai Union’s values is to be humble, which on the surface may seem strange to a Westerner, but this is so vital to understanding how to get things done and get along with your colleagues. Apart from the culture change, the best thing about my role been the amazing people I have met and worked with,” she said.
“The seafood industry is full of characters and I have had the opportunity to meet so many amazing people, from a Princess to a Prime Minister to migrant workers, victims of human trafficking and fishers.”