Slavery fuels global shrimp market, AP reports

(Phu Thinh Co/flickr)

The sharp rise of Thailand’s shrimp industry is built on human trafficking and slavery, according to an investigation by The Associated Press. The report follows an earlier one that detailed slavery in the Thai fishing industry. Migrant workers are sold to work in factories to peel shrimp that then is sold in all 50 states to top retailers including Wal-Mart, and major restaurant chains like Red Lobster.

AP reporters found nearly 100 migrants from Myanmar at the Gig Peeling Factory. They documented overflowing toilets and the “putrid smell of raw sewage” filling the factory from a nearby open gutter. The workers were crammed together, manually peeling shrimp. Family members are held as collateral when the workers want to take outdoor breaks – to prevent them from running away.

“They would say, ‘There’s a gun in the boss’s car and we’re going to come and shoot you, and no one will know,'” said Tin Nyo Win, one of the victims profiled in the report.

He and his wife were subjected to harsh treatment and made to peel 175 pounds of shrimp for $4 a day. Lured by the promise of higher wages, the two traveled from Myanmar and were forced to worked off their accrued debt of $830. They managed to escape after five months, but Tin Nyo’s wife was re-captured days later when she was shopping in the local market. He struggled to gain his wife’s freedom – they both were jailed – before they found safety in a place for trafficking victims.

The shrimp peeled at the Gig Peeling Factory are mixed in with other shrimp that are then sold to businesses in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia. By the time the shrimp reaches consumers’ plates, it is impossible to know whether it comes from factories like Gig or others that ensure responsible workplace practices. AP reporters traced the supply chain of the shrimp industry from Thailand around the world. They revealed that companies that take steps to ensure they are responsibly sourcing shrimp were not aware of the Gig factory and its contribution to their supplies.

More than 2,000 trapped fishermen were freed after recent reports by the AP on Thailand’s fishing industry. Companies interviewed by the AP for the shrimp story already said they will change procurement practices to ensure slave labor is not used. And the United States is applying pressure, in the wake of the reports.

“We have told Thailand to improve their anti-trafficking efforts, to increase their prosecutions, to provide services to victims. … [American consumers] can speak through their wallets and tell companies: ‘We don’t want to buy things made with slavery,'” said Susan Coppedge, the U.S. State Department’s new anti-trafficking ambassador, to AP.

The discovery of 36 bodies of migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh earlier this year prompted the AP to take a closer look at the fishing industry in Thailand. More than 100 people were charged in July in connection with the deaths; charged with human trafficking and illegally bringing people into the country. A Guardian investigation found that trafficking had become so profitable that Thai fishing boats were being converted to carry migrants from Myanmar. People were held in prisons in the jungles of Malaysia and Thailand before being sold off into labor.

Owners recently closed the Gig factory and workers reportedly are now at another facility connected with the Gig owners. The head of Samut Sakhon’s main police station is meeting with nearly 60 peeling shed owners in the region to explain the police crackdowns on trafficking and make clear why the practice is illegal.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.