Key wanted Thai billionaire's business

05:18, Jun 13 2014
Dhanin Chearavanont
Dhanin Chearavanont, chairman of Thailand's largest agribusiness group, Charoen Pokphand Food.

Prime Minister John Key last year met a Thai billionaire whose conglomerate is at the centre of fishing-industry slavery allegations, and encouraged him to invest in New Zealand.

Britain's Guardian this week published results of a six-month investigation into men forced to work for years with no pay and under threat of violence, being used in Asia in the production of seafood sold by major US, British and European retailers.

It found that large numbers of men, bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand, were integral to the production of prawns sold in leading supermarkets around the world.

The prawns are harvested for Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand Foods, which is headed by the country's richest man, Dhanin Chearavanont.

Labour Party fisheries spokesman Damien O'Connor said New Zealand supermarkets needed to reassure customers their seafood wasn't produced using Asian slave labour.

"Charoen Pokphand Foods sells its products throughout New Zealand," he said.

"Its pre-made meals are sold under the name CP Foods but its raw frozen seafood is sold here under other brand names.

"Kiwis would be horrified to learn [if] prawns they are eating have been produced under these shocking conditions.

"New Zealand supermarkets need to ascertain whether slave labour has been used in the production of their seafood products."

In on-going reporting the Guardian today says British Prime Minister David Cameron hosted Chearavanont at Downing St but did not record the visit on his official list of meetings.

A Number 10 spokesman said: "CP Foods met with No 10 officials to discuss trade and investment opportunities."

Last November in Bangkok, Key met with Chearavanont and encouraged him to visit New Zealand. He said the potential for investment in New Zealand companies was significant.

A spokeswoman for the prime minister confirmed that Key did meet with the billionaire, but before the slavery allegations came to light.

Over lunch Key said he talked about the political turmoil in Thailand - which has since resulted in a military coup.

Key said Chearavanont was "very relaxed ... didn't seem that concerned about the situation".

In New Zealand Foodstuffs NZ, which operates the New World supermarket chain, said they did not stock CP food products.

"All of our suppliers are expected to adhere to robust food-safety standards and the relevant legislation, including labour laws, in place in either New Zealand or their country of business," a spokeswoman said.

"It is our understanding that our prawn suppliers do not use CP feed and we have received assurances from them to this effect."|

A spokeswoman for Countdown, owned by Australian based Progressive Enterprise, said its suppliers had confirmed they did not source prawns from CP Foods.

She said all supplies were audited on ethical sourcing.

CP Foods said on its website that the "issue of endemic slavery in Thailand's seafood supply chain affects all producers in Thailand as they all use by-catch to produce their fishmeal in the same way and do not currently have full oversight of the supply chain to the fishing boats."

The company claimed it had been working actively since April last year to deal with the issue.

"We are now in the process of auditing our entire operation so that we can introduce an independent spot-check system across our supply chain to ensure it is and continues to be slavery free."

The company said it believed every worker should be treated fairly and with dignity at all times.

"That means having the right to work freely and gainfully without harassment, physical or emotional abuse and threat of arbitrary dismissal," the company said.

"This is one aspect of our extensive sustainability programme - making the Gulf of Thailand more sustainable."