The Link Between Slave Labor and Cheap Shrimp

In a horrifying exposé, the Guardian recently announced the results of a six-month investigation into Thailand’s fishing industry, revealing a vast slave trade that enables shrimp to be sold worldwide at low cost – at the expense of human lives.

The story is distressingly common – the majority of the 300,000 people working in the Thai fishing industry are these slave laborers. Immigrants from neighboring Burma and Cambodia, eager to build a better life in Thailand, are duped and sold into slavery, forced to work without pay for months on end on Thai fishing vessels where they suffer relentless abuse and torture – some are even killed. Some kill themselves to escape. In this slave trafficking scheme, boat captains buy these “migrant ghosts” from brokers for about $750 US. Their job is to catch the “trash fish” that are turned into fish meal which is fed to shrimp; without them, the Thai fishing industry, the largest shrimp supplier in the world and the second largest seafood supplier to the US, would disintegrate. CP Foods, the company that buys the trash fish, provides much of the shrimp that is consumed globally. Technically, CP buys from licensed vessels, but the use of fake licenses, coupled with the lack of verification, only serves to proliferate human exploitation. Corrupt government officials not only turn a blind eye to these practices but are even complicit in facilitating them, according to the report.

Thai authorities give lip service to the problem of human trafficking, acknowledging its existence and pledging to take action. Walmart, Costco and other chains that profit from selling artificially low-priced shrimp censure the practice and claim to be establishing procedures to address the issue, although they do not yet show a willingness to refuse to buy and sell shrimp fed by slave labor. CP unsurprisingly maintains that it is better to work within the system than attempt its upheaval. None were available to be interviewed by the Guardian.

The shrimp industry had been plagued with problems before the story broke. Sustainability was an issue: imported vs US, wild vs farmed. The past two decades’ boom in shrimp sales created a “shrimp fever” gold rush in Thailand, with profits outweighing environmental concerns, but this report brings labor abuse issues to the fore.

“If you buy prawns or shrimp from Thailand, you will be buying the produce of slave labor,” says Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International. But boycotting shrimp will not make enough of a dent in the issue. The current production structure must be overturned – a change that will prove stubborn to effect in a system with such an exquisitely entrenched stranglehold on the industry. And that will require real action from governments around the world. The US state department maintains an international human trafficking index; if the US were to downgrade Thailand to Tier 3, it would be at the same level as Iran and North Korea and that would severely impact the trade program between the two countries – which could be enough to make the Thai government take notice and take action.

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