The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home.
Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States.
Here, in the Indonesian island village of Benjina and the surrounding waters, hundreds of trapped men represent one of the most desperate links criss-crossing between companies and countries in the seafood industry. This intricate web of connections separates the fish we eat from the men who catch it, and obscures a brutal truth: Your seafood may come from slaves.
The men the Associated Press spoke to on Benjina were mostly from Myanmar, also known as Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world. They were brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to fish. Their catch was shipped back to Thailand, and then entered the global commerce stream.
Tainted fish can wind up in the supply chains of some of America’s major grocery stores, such as Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway; the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart; and the biggest food distributor, Sysco. It can find its way into the supply chains of some of the most popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. It can turn up as calamari at fine dining restaurants, as imitation crab in a California sushi roll or as packages of frozen snapper relabeled with store brands that land on our dinner tables.
Basically, if you are eating commercial seafood, you are probably inadvertently supporting extremely exploitative labor if not outright slavery. Whether it is Walmart contracting with Louisiana fish suppliers who bring guestworkers in from other countries and then lock them into the factory or big American and European companies buying southeast Asian seafood off the open market, horrific labor is what propels cheap seafood.
This is why in order to fight these conditions, we must be able to hold contracting corporations legally responsible for the actions of their suppliers. It is Walmart, Kroger, etc. that are demanding the fish at a very low price. Just like with apparel, this puts downward pressure on wages, to the point of using slave labor wherever possible. Right now, there is no way to hold these corporations accountable. At best, one local operation gets busted but then it just gets replaced by something else almost or just as bad. That’s not acceptable.