The AP’s ongoing investigation into labor abuses in the commercial fishing industry reveals widespread human trafficking and slave labor in the preparation of peeled shrimp destined for American plates.
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.
Earlier this year, the AP’s investigation resulted in the release of more than 2,000 fishermen who were held against their will and forced to work in the Thai seafood industry. Now, focus has shifted to a network of shrimp peeling sheds in port towns where migrant workers are enslaved or held in debt bondage.
Inside the large warehouse, toilets overflowed with feces, and the putrid smell of raw sewage wafted from an open gutter just outside the work area. Young children ran barefoot through suffocating dorm rooms. Entire families labored side-by-side at rows of stainless steel counters piled high with tubs of shrimp.
Tin Nyo Win and his wife, Mi San, were cursed for not peeling fast enough and called “cows” and “buffalos.” They were allowed to go outside for food only if one of them stayed behind as insurance against running away.
The AP reports conditions inside the sheds are brutal:
In the Gig shed, employees’ salaries were pegged to how fast their fingers could move. Tin Nyo Win and his wife peeled about 175 pounds of shrimp for just $4 a day, less than half of what they were promised. A female Thai manager, who slapped and cursed workers, often cut their wages without explanation. After they bought gloves and rubber boots, and paid monthly “cleaning fees” inside the trash-strewn shed, almost nothing was left.
Employees said they had to work even when they were ill. Seventeen children peeled alongside adults, sometimes crying, at stations where paint chipped off the walls and slick floors were eaten away by briny water.
Lunch breaks were only 15 minutes, and migrants were yelled at for talking too much. Several workers said a woman died recently because she didn’t get proper medical care for her asthma. Children never went to school and began peeling shrimp just an hour later than adults.
Though government agencies and industry representatives have pledged reforms, the largely unregulated and undocumented network of suppliers makes it difficult to hold abusers accountable:
Susan Coppedge, the U.S. State Department’s new anti-trafficking ambassador, said problems persist because brokers, boat captains and seafood firms aren’t held accountable and victims have no recourse.
“We have told Thailand to improve their anti-trafficking efforts, to increase their prosecutions, to provide services to victims,” she said. She added that American consumers “can speak through their wallets and tell companies: ‘We don’t want to buy things made with slavery.'”