The Global Shrimp Industry Has a Slavery Problem

It’s possible you buy shrimp from stores that buy from farms that buy feed from producers that employ slave labor.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
June 10, 2014, 7:47 a.m.

A glob­al­ized food sys­tem en­sures that con­sumers the world over can pur­chase vir­tu­ally any product, reas­on­ably fresh, in any sea­son, any­where. The costs from such lux­ur­ies are usu­ally seen in the form of un­equal off­shore pay and the en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact. But what if those food op­tions are tain­ted by something a lot more sin­is­ter?

New in­form­a­tion un­earthed in The Guard­i­an sug­gests that in the long chain of pro­duc­tion that shrimp take from South­east Asia to the Amer­ic­an din­ner table, slave labor factors in. In sum­mary:

The in­vest­ig­a­tion found that the world’s largest prawn [shrimp] 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.

The de­tails get grisly:

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.

Fur­ther­more, The Guard­i­an re­ports, the shrimp which have fed on the feed that was pro­duced in part by slave labor, are pur­chased by Amer­ic­an big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco. CP Foods ad­mit­ted to The Guard­i­an that they know there are prob­lems with their sup­pli­ers, but “but to what ex­tent that is, we just don’t have vis­ib­il­ity.” And Costco has said it will de­mand its sup­pli­ers po­lice their sup­pli­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2013 U.S. State De­part­ment re­port on hu­man traf­fick­ing, al­though slavery is il­leg­al there, “Thai­l­and is a source, des­tin­a­tion, and trans­it coun­try for men, wo­men, and chil­dren sub­jec­ted to forced labor and sex traf­fick­ing.” And “a sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion of labor traf­fick­ing vic­tims with­in Thai­l­and are ex­ploited in com­mer­cial fish­ing, fish­ing-re­lated in­dus­tries, low-end gar­ment pro­duc­tion, factor­ies, and do­mest­ic work, and some are forced to beg on the streets.”

Con­cerns over the Thai shrimp in­dustry are not new. Wal-Mart stopped buy­ing shrimp from Narong, an­oth­er Thai man­u­fac­turer, in 2012, pre­sum­ably over charges that Narong hired un­der­age work­ers. Thai­l­and pro­duces nearly a third of the shrimp con­sumed in the United States, for a haul of $1 bil­lion a year.

En­sur­ing an eth­ic­al glob­al sup­ply chain is no small chal­lenge for in­ter­na­tion­al com­pan­ies that also have an in­terest in keep­ing down costs. Apple, prob­ably most no­tori­ously, has suffered pub­licly un­der re­ports of un­safe work­ing con­di­tions in its sup­pli­er factor­ies in China. Al­though it’s hard to say that any one shrimp was the dir­ect res­ult of slave labor (it’s im­plied that CP foods has more than one shrimp-feed sup­pli­er), that dark hu­man traf­fick­ing eco­nomy does touch at the corners of our glob­al­ized com­mer­cial one. Is that worth the price of cheap shrimp?

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