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Unfree Labor in American Seafood

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Usually when I talk about unfree labor, it’s overseas in supply chains producing products for western markets. But the U.S. has several of its own systemic versions of unfree labor–widespread use of prison labor, sweatshops in Los Angeles, etc. Another is in the seafood industry where suppliers use guestworkers to provide your frozen shrimp. But this is not free labor, not with the guestworkers having no recourse.

But labor abuse in the seafood sector isn’t a problem confined to Asia. A report published Wednesday by the labor group the National Guestworker Alliance suggests that some US seafood workers also experience abusive conditions. The report focuses on the experiences of undocumented and H2-B visa guestworkers shucking, peeling, and boiling shrimp and crawfish at seafood processing plants in New Bedford, Mass. and along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Around 69 percent of shrimp produced in the US comes from the Gulf Coast.

“Stealing wages is standard business practice. The financial incentive to underpay guestworkers is far greater than the risk of getting caught.”

According to the NGA report, the US seafood industry has relied heavily on H2-B guestworkers and undocumented immigrants to drive down labor costs to stay price competitive with international producers. A 2009 survey in New Bedford found that nearly 75 percent of the workers in its seafood processing industry were undocumented immigrants. The US Department of Labor certified over 5,700 H2-B visas for seafood related positions in 2014, a marked 15 percent increase over 2013. Because employers grant H2-B visas, those on the receiving end are particularly vulnerable. Due to threats of retaliation by employers—including firing, which can result in deportation—guestworkers are often hesitant to report mistreatment. “Hours were long, wages were bad, housing was terrible—but we were all afraid that if we spoke up, we would lose our jobs, our housing, and our ability to ever come back to the US to work,” longtime H-2B guestworker Olivia Guzman Garfias told the NGA.

Here are some more striking details from the NGA’s report:

In housing provided by processing companies in both the Louisiana Gulf and New Bedford, Mass., workers reported living with up to 20 people per trailer, without access to proper sanitation and sometimes with strict curfews.

Of the 126 seafood workers surveyed in New Bedford, 25 percent reported having been injured on the job. The majority of workers reported having to purchase their own safety equipment.

44 percent reported not being paid for overtime work.

At times, piece rates for pounds of shrimp prorated to levels well below minimum wage, as low as $2 per hour, and employers sometimes failed to pay promised rates. According to NGA Organizing Director Jacob Horwitz: “Stealing wages is standard business practice. The financial incentive to underpay guestworkers is far greater than the risk of getting caught.”

Female workers experienced sexual harassment and verbal abuse in the workplace as well as in company-provided housing. Some women spoke of unwanted sexual advances by company brass, and of being fired for rebuffing such advances.

Once again, if you are eating frozen seafood, you are eating a product made by unfree labor. Unfortunately, while we can pressure Walmart and other stores from using these suppliers, they lack the legal obligation to take responsibility for their supply chains. Until we can go after the corporate buyers of this seafood, this sort of exploitation will continue. And this is yet more evidence that guestworker programs simply do not work, at least in low-wage jobs, and there should be no place for them in whatever immigration reform bill eventually passes Congress.

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