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Shrimp and Slavery

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Your monthly LGM reminder that if you buy shrimp from supermarkets, you probably are buying a product produced by slaves:

Every morning at 2 a.m., they heard a kick on the door and a threat: Get up or get beaten. For the next 16 hours, No. 31 and his wife stood in the factory that owned them with their aching hands in ice water. They ripped the guts, heads, tails and shells off shrimp bound for overseas markets, including grocery stores and all-you-can-eat buffets across the United States.

After being sold to the Gig Peeling Factory, they were at the mercy of their Thai bosses, trapped with nearly 100 other Burmese migrants. Children worked alongside them, including a girl so tiny she had to stand on a stool to reach the peeling table. Some had been there for months, even years, getting little or no pay. Always, someone was watching.

No names were ever used, only numbers given by their boss — Tin Nyo Win was No. 31.

Pervasive human trafficking has helped turn Thailand into one of the world’s biggest shrimp providers. Despite repeated promises by businesses and government to clean up the country’s $7 billion seafood export industry, an Associated Press investigation has found shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves is reaching the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Last month, AP journalists followed and filmed trucks loaded with freshly peeled shrimp from the Gig shed to major Thai exporting companies and then, using U.S. customs records and Thai industry reports, tracked it globally. They also traced similar connections from another factory raided six months earlier, and interviewed more than two dozen workers from both sites.

U.S. customs records show the shrimp made its way into the supply chains of major U.S. food stores and retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Dollar General and Petco, along with restaurants such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden.

It also entered the supply chains of some of America’s best-known seafood brands and pet foods, including Chicken of the Sea and Fancy Feast, which are sold in grocery stores from Safeway and Schnucks to Piggly Wiggly and Albertsons. AP reporters went to supermarkets in all 50 states and found shrimp products from supply chains tainted with forced labor.

European and Asian import and export records are confidential, but the Thai companies receiving shrimp tracked by the AP all say they ship to Europe and Asia as well.

The only way to stop this is to hold supermarkets legally accountable for their supply chains. This is the correct moral argument and the correct legal argument. Corporations can’t lie and say they don’t know or don’t have control–they know very well where this shrimp comes from. The journalists tracked the whole thing! The stores have to be punished for buying slave-made goods. It’s not that we can expect Kroger to operate its own shrimp boats, but they have to be made to become active participants in the global war against slavery instead of the more than willing beneficiaries of slave labor. This is why we need new laws and regulations over imports that place the U.S. directly on the side of dignified lives for global workers. It is stories like this that made me write Out of Sight. If we aren’t outraged by our food produced by actual slaves and we become complicit with this system even after we know about it, then what kind of people are we? This is why I think it’s so important to think through the legal remedies to these problems instead of just relying on leftist shibboleths about solidarity or vaguely complaining American unions should do more. We have avenues to help make that change and we can try to activate those levers through the introduction of new laws, the enforcement of current laws, and the creation of new regulations. Unfortunately, we have great enemies in this, which are the Republican Party and American corporations. But they can be defeated and forced to acquiesce. Banning all seafood imports from Thailand until their companies agreed to international independent monitoring would be a good first step.

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