Don’t eat that shrimp

January 04, 2016


Last year, the Guardian shed light on an uncomfortable — and unfortunate — truth about much of the shrimp sold in North America, Europe, Japan and elsewhere around the world. A six-month-long investigation revealed that torture, wage-theft, beatings and various other illegal practices were a reality in the production chain of the world's largest supplier.

[by Roberto A. Ferdman| December 15, 2015 |Washington Post]

"If you buy prawns or shrimp from Thailand, you will be buying the produce of slave labor," Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, told the Guardian at the time. And many countries do, including the United States, which imports about half of the shrimp Thailand harvests.

The investigation followed a 2013 report by the Environmental Justice Foundation, a nongovernmental organization, which chronicled the abuse in the Thai shrimp industry. It also spurred a flurry of corporate responses: Walmart said it was "actively engaged" in the issue; Costco said it was telling its suppliers "to take corrective action;" and Tesco, the largest supermarket chain in Britain, called it "completely unacceptable."

But almost two years later, the problem persists.

A new report published on Monday by the Associated Press holds that such abuses are still rampant in the Thai shrimp industry. What's more, major markets around the world aren't doing a good job of keeping shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves out of their food system. The AP investigation, which has led to the freeing of thousands of indentured fishermen, dozens of arrests and millions of dollars in seizures, found that the United States has been particularly poor in this regard. This, per the report:

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.

In part, the problem stems from the growing appetite for ready-to-cook shellfish, which is peeled before it's packaged and frozen. The result is a stir-fry-friendly food that is easy to make and has proved wildly popular (shrimp is now far and away the most popular seafood in the United States). But the labor required to provide that luxury is so large that exporters have turned to unregistered peeling sheds, where workers are overworked, underpaid and often unable to leave.

The burden has largely fallen on migrants, who, desperate for work, are likeliest to oblige. And the government has done little to curb the conditions. This is how Gwynn Guilford, who has written extensively about slave labor in the seafood trade, described the role of migrant workers in a 2013 piece:

Unsurprisingly, Thais long since stopped taking those jobs. Migrants, mostly from Myanmar, can earn more there than they would at home, and thus send money to support their families. Though Thailand’s estimated 3 million migrants make up 10% of its workforce, in seafood processing, they compose 90%.

But protecting workers and punishing abuses is expensive. It also risks making Thailand’s exports pricier. Maybe that’s why the government does neither.

The conditions aren't helped by countries, such as the United States, which allow slave-peeled shrimp to enter the domestic supply chain. A near-century-old exemption contained in the U.S. tariff code stipulates that companies can bring goods into the country that don't meet domestic labor laws (i.e. that were produced with forced labor) if there is a supposed shortage of that good, but in the United States precise demand is a tough thing to pinpoint. The result is a loophole that allows food sourced from deplorable means to slip through the cracks. A bill that would close the loophole was introduced earlier this year and has since passed the Senate and House of Representative, which are still working to resolve differences.

The truth is that even for companies hoping to escape such seafood, it's not very easy. The issue is further complicated by the ease with which slave-peeled shrimp dissolves into the system. The AP tracked shrimp from one unregulated peeling shed to a number of major exporters, all of which claimed to abhor the very practices that were helping to boost their supply. Several American companies told the AP that their supplier had assured them their shrimp wasn't being served at the expense of abusive labor practices, but that supplier later admitted that it couldn't account for the source of all of its shrimp.

The AP published a list of grocers that it visited randomly and found such shrimp (the list runs dozens of companies long), but the problem is likely far more extensive. On Monday, Martha Mendoza, who was part of the team that conducted the investigation, participated in a Reddit "Ask me Anything,"where experts, celebrities and other people of public interest open themselves up to questions. She said they found that just about every grocery store in the United States had supply chains that could be linked to modern-day slavery. She also lamented that "there is more oversight in seafood to protect dolphins than there is to protect humans."

Thailand is hardly the only offender — the U.S. State Department has tied some 55 countries to such practices — but it is among the worst offenders.The Global Slavery Index estimates that the country is home to nearly half a million enslaved workers, and specifically cites the shrimp industry as a leading contributor. The 2014 Guardian report, meanwhile, holds that the Thai government condemns the same abuses that its officials help to perpetuate.

The European Union, which has already slapped Thai seafood imports with a hefty tariff, is weighing the possibility of an outright ban. It's hard to see how this latest investigation won't increase the likelihood of a ban.

So far, reaction to the report has been mixed. Some have called for a boycottof seafood linked to Thailand. Others have dismissed the idea as counterproductive, arguing that continuing to source from the country but demanding better oversight is a more practical and ultimately effective approach. Companies, meanwhile, have denied that shrimp made from slave labor is entering their supply chains, despite the fact that the AP investigation found otherwise.

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  • When I read this report, I feel sadness that this is going on, but it is not just in the shrimp Industry, forced labor is everywhere in the countries of cheap labor. On top of it many of the products are not produced in Sanitary places, have poisonous ingredients growing them or making them. Our multinational Companies do not really care, they are exploiting these people as well as driving the cost down to next to nothing. All the Companies listed in that report are guilty in one way or an other.
    The WTO want’s to fine the US for having labels of Ingredients and Country of Origin on the products we are buying and importing.
    But they do not care, about Forced and Child Labor, destruction of Environments, Pollution, unsafe Products, unsanitary conditions for raising Animals, Currency Manipulation and many more. And the WTO want’s to tell us what we need to be doing.
    The problem I have is with our People in our Country all of them came at one time from Europe and brought skills and values from their Countries and now it took only a few Generation to become a Country of no Values. It seams People do not care the food they eat, what they eat and what is in it, how it is made and by whom. They don’t care that we have goods manufactured in Foreign Country’s, living on wellfare because they don’t have Jobs. Our Government is running out of Money and are in the red by Trillions.
    People wake up, you tell your Senators and Congressman what they need to be doing, you Voted for them to be in Office to support you.
    As it is now, they are on the pockets by Big Corporation, Lobbyists, Foreign Countries, and Foreign Companies, so we need to get them out of Office.
    20-30 Years ago everyone had a job, products for the most part were produced in the USA, people made good money, we did have very good insurance mostly paid 100% by the company we worked for, look around what we have now, the future is in your hands, if we continue we are ending up like the People from the Country’s we are Buying from.