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Slave Labor in the Thai Fisheries

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If you buy southeast Asian seafood, which includes most of the shrimp in the frozen section of your grocery store, you are buying a product produced with slave labor.

A six-month investigation has established that large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand are integral to the production of prawns (commonly called shrimp in the US) sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.

The investigation found that the world’s largest prawn farmer, the Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, buys fishmeal, which it feeds to its farmed prawns, from some suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned with slaves.

Men who have 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. Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.

Fifteen migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia also told how they had been enslaved. They said they had paid brokers to help them find work in Thailand in factories or on building sites. But they had been sold instead to boat captains, sometimes for as little as £250.

“I thought I was going to die,” said Vuthy, a former monk from Cambodia who was sold from captain to captain. “They kept me chained up, they didn’t care about me or give me any food … They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings.”

Another trafficking victim said he had seen as many as 20 fellow slaves killed in front of him, one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.

For a more complete view of labor exploitation in the Thai shrimp industry, see this report from the Environmental Justice Foundation (PDF).

Of course, Wal-Mart and the other companies don’t care. They are happy to bring in fish sourced with slave labor. In fact, its own fish contractors in the U.S. have followed this model as closely as possible.

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  • BBC World Service did a great radio documentary about this back in January: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01q5cf4

    • This topic has received a surprising amount of attention over the past 2 years. Nothing has led to a major campaign or anything, but there’s been a number of stories along these lines.

      • Megalon

        Yeah, I remember reading about this a few years ago. I was surprised and disappointed that things don’t seem to gotten any better.

        • For my part at least, I’ll keep linking to these articles and trying to publicize it. Who knows, maybe people will get angry enough to act.

    • JoyfulA

      I read Colin Cotterill’s Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach a year or two back, crime fiction on this very topic. The protagonist in the series is a Thai woman.

  • ‘“I thought I was going to die,” said Vuthy, a former monk from Cambodia who was sold from captain to captain. “They kept me chained up, they didn’t care about me or give me any food … They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings.”’

    No, sadly you’re not.
    At least not to unregulated Capitalists.
    To them, you are the cheapest form of labor.

    Slavery, whether it’s wage slavery, or actual slavery, is the best friend, and oldest and purest form, of unregulated Capitalism.

  • Well that’s another couple hundred or thousand more reasons to give up seafood. As if the impending (ongoing?) collapse of fish populations wasn’t enough.

  • DrDick

    This is also a major problem in Africa, particularly on Ghana’s Lake Volta, where they are mostly children.

  • DrDick

    Here is an ILO report on forced labor in the fishing industry.

  • Este

    WalMart is probably envious that they can’t treat their own employees like this.

    (Seriously, though, *quartering*? And ironically I just finished commenting about trigger warnings on the George Will post…possibly there needs to be a trigger warning for people trying to bring back Renaissance-era punishments).

    • It is nice of you to say “probably,” but I think you’re giving WalMart more credit than it deserves.

  • Pawns in the prawn wars.

  • Brett

    Of course, Wal-Mart and the other companies don’t care. They are happy to bring in fish sourced with slave labor.

    No they’re not, as the article itself mentions. Even for CP to identify what was caught with slave labor and what wasn’t is incredibly difficult, because the slave boats often don’t come into port to be checked and sell their catch while at sea to other ships who bring it in. And the Thai government’s response to it all has been rather half-assed.

    • SamR

      Yes, they are. Read the linked article at the end of the post.

  • Anonymous

    This is a terrible issue and I think everyone agrees that we would like to see it stopped. This ol’ “let’s boycott Southeast Asia seafood” stuff might make the self-righteous feel good, but it certainly won’t work.
    Instead of trying to centralize control from here in the US, the better solution is to put pressure on the Thai government to step in and do something with threats of tariffs and other economic sanctions.

    This same path should be taken with other labor issues such as the shoe manufacturing in Bangladesh. Attempts a centralized control and attempting to pressure businesses directly, while in the liberal blood, will not be effective.

    • Gregor Sansa

      Where do they get these stylesheets? I really don’t think it has enough intelligence to come up with something so perfectly Orwellian as “centralize control” on it’s own.

      • Hogan

        Also, tariffs are a threat to the government? Not to the businesses? I . . . don’t see how that works.

      • Anonymous

        aaaaaak, “its”.

        • gregor someone

          that was me

  • Im currently commercial fishing in alaska (salmon seining) and blatant mistreatment of the processors is a frequent conversation. The only defense ever offered is the usual “we treat them better here then they do in ________ (invariably some village in the aleutians).” Zero of tue workers are local, this current town has a large number of sudanese and congolise folks living in shipping containers being woken up at random hours to work a short (less then 3 hour) shift before being sent back to their bunks. Most processors hold the cost of lodging over the heads of their workers by offering it free of charge if they finish a season, but charging an insanely steep rate if they quit early. All while never giveing them enough hours to earn a decent living.

  • JRoth

    FWIW, Gulf shrimp are better quality shrimp anyway.

    • liberalrob

      And they come pre-marinated in oil.

  • Just Dropping By

    one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.

    My “Somaly Mam” brand baloney detector is going off at this particular flourish. Stop and think about the complexity of organizing four boats on open water in a configuration that allows you to tie a victim to each of them, let alone then successfully tying the victim to them. This would take way more work than quartering a victim on dry land and for no clear purpose — if the slaves aren’t already intimidated by being shot or drowned, this isn’t going to be that much more convincing. I don’t doubt there is slave labor and other terrible abuse going on here, but this sounds like Saddam Hussein’s alleged executions via industrial shredder (which was thoroughly debunked post-invasion).

    • Possible certainly, but there is a lot of evidence of these crazy kind of killings going on in that industry, including reports from major internationally well-respected labor and human rights organizations.

    • I do however think the skepticism on the details is useful. Either way though, murdering workers happens all the time out there.

  • Brautigan

    This is enormously depressing for a whole host of reasons (and not just because I love eating shrimp). It really is getting to the point where virtually nothing in the grocery store is safe, healthy, humane or responsible. Or at least it’s impossible to know, seeing how our government fights even common-sense labeling requirements.

    I really wish some billionaire would start a “Good Housekeeping Seal” type of organization to certify foodstuffs as being made out of food, from renewable resources, without killing innocent creatures or using slave labor.

  • DocAmazing

    I’m sure Nic Kristof will be on the job any second!

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