A group that backed a $10 million gift to Georgetown University in January has been linked with slavery and human trafficking in the Thai fishing industry, according to a report by the Guardian newspaper, prompting concern among students.
The Charoen Pokphand Group, a Thai conglomerate, created the Hong Kong-based Spring Breeze Foundation in 2015 in order to expedite its charitable donation process. The foundation announced Jan. 14 that it would donate $10 million over 10 years to the university for the creation of an Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues.
A 2014 investigation conducted by the Guardian newspaper found that the CP Group fed its shrimp with fishmeal supplied by fishing trawlers operated with slave labor.
In a 2014 Guardian editorial responding to the investigation, CP Foods Chairman Dhanin Chearavanont condemned slavery in the Thai fishing industry and emphasized the corporation’s commitment to combatting the use of slave labor in food production. According to the editorial, the CP Group eliminated suppliers suspected of human trafficking or slavery involvement. The Group also said it would conduct an audit on its suppliers and assist law enforcement authorities in these investigations.
“Through our research and development of alternative protein sources, CPF could walk away from fishmeal,” Chearavanont wrote. “However, doing so would shift the problem to the fishing industry, which is mostly comprised of fishermen earning their living in legal ways. The products of the fishing boats involved in human trafficking and slavery will continue to be purchased by other factories, and the issues around slavery will remain unchanged.”
The CP Group’s production accounts for 10 percent of the 50,000 tons of shrimp annually exported from Thailand and sold to foreign retailers such as Wal-mart and Costco.
The report described the experiences of Burmese and Cambodian migrants coerced into human trafficking rings.
“Men who managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings,” the Guardian reported June 10.
Shang Zhang (GRD ’11), an investment manager for CP Group’s subsidiary CT Bright Holdings, stressed the measures taken by the corporation to combat human trafficking. The CP Group founded the Shrimp Sustainable Supply Chain Task Force in 2014, which seeks to eliminate forced labor from Thailand’s seafood industry.
“CP is actively doing the right things in addressing the issue and improving the local context instead of walking away and shirking responsibility,” Zhang wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Vice President of Global Affairs Thomas Banchoff said that although the university was aware of the claims before accepting the gift, it was satisfied with the CP Group’s response to the slavery allegations.
“In our background research we examined a June 2014 report of slave labor on some of the fishing boats in CP Food’s shrimp industry supply chain,” Banchoff wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We were reassured by the CP Group’s immediate response to the report – to reiterate its opposition to all aspects of human trafficking and slavery and to invite independent NGOs to routinely audit its suppliers.”
Celeste Chen (COL ’14, GRD ’17) was among a group of current Georgetown students who first called attention to the potential unethical practices of the donor group in a letter to The Hoya. Chen drew parallels between Georgetown’s acceptance of the donation and the renaming of McSherry and Mulledy Halls last November in light of lingering racial sensitivities associated with their namesakes’ involvement with slavery.
“The fact that we’re now accepting money that is connected and supported by a company that not only runs modern-day slavery, but also has acknowledged it and said that it can’t really do anything to stop it because it is what it is, is just incredibly hypocritical,” Chen said. “It needs to be re-examined, like what our motives are and if we really learned anything from the fact that we decided to rename the residence halls. Did we learn anything from the media coverage, from the student sit-ins, did the administration actually consider that?”
Chen also questioned whether the CP Group’s link to the Chinese government as its first foreign investor threatens the autonomy of the initiative’s research. However, Banchoff said that academic independence is a foundational aspect of the new program.
“Georgetown maintains full independence to manage the initiative consistent with our mission and values– a principle that the donor fully acknowledges,” Banchoff wrote. “Independence is one of four foundational principles for the initiative, alongside transparency, balance and academic excellence. All four are designed to ensure that the initiative upholds academic freedom and promotes the open exchange of ideas.”
Amin Gharad (COL ’16), former president of Georgetown’s chapter of Amnesty International, said the university should examine the moral implications of accepting the gift.
“If these things are true, those are serious moral considerations that need to be looked at if the university decides to go through with this [initiative],” Gharad said. “From what I know, this is a very serious thing that should be investigated, and if it’s found to be true, I would like to think the very least you could do is not participate and not give any credence to the immoral activities of these human trafficking syndicates.”
Gharad said he is weary of the selective outrage that accompanies human rights abuses.
“When these things happen in Nigeria or in Iraq at the hands of groups that are enemies of the state and rightfully so, we have no problem not only condemning it but also taking deliberate action to have nothing to do with it in terms of incentivizing it,” Gharad said. “I don’t see why this would be any different, considering it was done under the auspices of the Thai government or a big fancy corporation that has billions and billions of dollars just turning a blind eye.”
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