Report alleging maltreatment affirms accounts of slavish conditions; wild shrimp offer pure, ethical alternative
by Craig Weatherby
Most of the shrimp in American markets and restaurants is farm-raised, and three out of four farmed shrimp are produced in Southeast Asia.
Thailand is the biggest exporter of farmed shrimp to the U.S., followed by China, Ecuador, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico, India, Malaysia, and Bangladesh (NMFS 2006).
Cheap Asian crustaceans have driven domestic shrimpers—including, ironically, Vietnamese shrimpers working the Gulf fishery—to the brink of extinction.
And as we reported last year, some Asian shrimp operations have been guilty of destroying coastal mangrove forests that filter pollutants and serve as essential incubators for many species of fish and shellfish.
Now, a report by a U.S. labor advocacy and research group details worker and environmental abuse in the Thai and Bangladeshi farmed shrimp industries.
It was compiled by The Solidarity Center, an international nonprofit organization allied with the AFL-CIO.
Critics cite report's broad brush
Critics of the report—such as U.S. shrimp distributors and seafood trade magazines—have complained that it tars all Asian shrimp farms and processors with an unfairly broad brush.
But it is nearly impossible to get at the truth about any one company, given some major shrimp producers' documented efforts to intimidate workers.
More important, the basic allegations in the report are supported by other investigations, with specific instances of abuse confirmed by the U.S. State Department.
To be sure, there may be bias built into a report created by a labor group seeking to protect U.S jobs from cheap foreign shrimp.
But the authors were careful to note that the abuses do not exist in all companies or places, and oppose a boycott that would harm poor shrimp workers in Southeast Asia.
We'd like to present some key excerpts from the report, and the full text of an interview with the lead authors, designed to address the obvious questions it will raise among American shrimp consumers.
As the report says, “The purpose… is not to overwhelm the reader with depressing details of abuse, but to illustrate through these true stories the real cost of inexpensive seafood. Telling them is one way to encourage companies and governments across the shrimp supply chain to take positive action.”
Key excerpts from the report
These passages come from The Solidarity Center report, titled The Degradation of Work: The True Cost of Shrimp (Larson E et al. 2008):
“In little more than 30 years, the shrimp industry has been revolutionized through an unprecedented increase in efficient production, resulting in tremendous profitability for producers.
“However, the ‘shrimp boom' is sustained through a staggering, largely hidden, cost to workers, their families, and the environment. Not for the first time, the drive to make a product for the world market quickly and cheaply leaves a trail of abuse, misery, and damaged lives. The true cost of shrimp is not what is seen on a supermarket price tag or a restaurant menu.
“Bangladesh and Thailand are both major locales for shrimp production and processing. The Solidarity Center focuses on these two countries in this report. In both, companies use the lack of labor rights and weak labor law enforcement to exploit shrimp processing workers. Yet, it is these workers who make the shrimp industry profitable.
“Our research uncovered prevalent labor rights and human rights violations—unpaid wages, unsafe and unhealthy workplaces, and the harsh physical mistreatment of workers. Child labor, forced labor, physical intimidation, and sexual abuse of shrimp industry workers are also carefully documented in these pages.”
Interview with report authors details key dilemmas
The following interview features Ellie Larson and Tim Ryan of the Solidarity Center, who led the writing of the new report:
Q: Let's start with what is probably on everyone's mind after reading The True Cost of Shrimp: Do you recommend a boycott of Thai and Bangladeshi shrimp?
Tim Ryan (TR), Asia/Europe Programs Director:
No, we don't. The goal of this report is not to advocate for a boycott. On the contrary, it is vitally important that countries like Thailand and Bangladesh attract and increase investment, because that means jobs for poor people who need them. But it is also important that the workers of Thailand and Burma and Bangladesh and other countries with poor labor standards and lax enforcement reap the benefits of this investment, since it is on their backs, and in their hands, that the products of the global economy are produced. A boycott would hurt the very workers we are trying to help.
Q: So if you do not recommend a boycott, should we just do nothing? Surely that would also be bad for the workers.
TR: You are right. What we do recommend is that consumers and organizations put pressure on all stakeholders—the companies, the brands, the governments, the workers, and their representatives—to come together in order to improve the situation through corporate responsibility and strong labor laws. In the last few months, the Bangladesh Frozen Food Exporters Association has already taken the first step, and we hope it will lead to lasting change.
Q: At the press conference, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) called human trafficking “21st century slavery.” Would you use that term to describe the conditions for the shrimp workers in The True Cost of Shrimp?
Ellie Larson (EL), Solidarity Center Executive Director: Yes, I would. Many of the workers we interviewed described serious human rights violations and deplorable working and living conditions.
These workers, mostly young Burmese women, were putting in 18-hour shifts, peeling 40 pounds of shrimp per day. They earned only a few dollars a month, and much of that was deducted from their wages to pay off the labor broker who had brought them to Thailand with the promise of decent work—an empty promise, as they soon learned.
This is forced labor. This is slavery. Congresswoman Maloney is the co-founder and co-chair of the Human Trafficking Caucus and a longtime advocate for the protection of the world's most vulnerable. As she said, we will continue our efforts to combat these horrible practices, and together, we will bring those who would exploit the vulnerable to justice.
Q: Another panelist, Alison Friedman, spoke on behalf of the Action Group to End Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery. Ms. Friedman feels that we all bear responsibility for the plight of global supply chain workers who are exploited. Do you agree with that?
EL: I certainly do. Ms. Friedman spoke eloquently about our unintentional involvement with slavery. She said, "Slavery touches all of us—the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the food we eat, and the cell phones we can't put down." This is the reality that we can't hide. Ignorance is no excuse.
We've got to stop pointing fingers and start connecting the dots. To clean up global supply chains, we need informed consumers, engaged corporations, responsible government leaders, effective worker protection laws, and strong worker rights organizations.
Q: Some organizations are challenging you to provide specific details or else deliver an apology to the countries and companies involved. How do you respond to these demands?
EL: The findings in The True Cost of Shrimp speak for themselves. These conditions have been known for years.
Moreover, our report is backed up by independent investigations. In 2007, the AFL-CIO filed a petition to the U.S. Trade Representative for removal of General System of Preferences trade benefits from Bangladesh, citing violations of core labor standards in the ready-made garment and shrimp industries.
In addition, Ambassador Mark Lagon of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons told us at the panel discussion that in September 2006, the Thai police rescued 800 Burmese men, women, and children during a raid on a shrimp processing factory.
Many of these workers—and that includes the children—had been physically and psychologically abused. They were not paid. Their employer had confiscated their documents, and they were confined behind a 16-foot-high wall topped with barbed wire. This was a clear case of human trafficking.
Q: What do you think we can do to ensure that this horrible degradation of work is never repeated and that shrimp workers in Bangladesh, Thailand, and other countries have decent work?
TR: The road to global worker justice is a long one. As a first step, we want to ensure that import companies respect and implement internationally recognized core labor standards—freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, the elimination of forced and child labor, and non-discrimination in the workplace—at all points along the supply chain.
U.S. companies should require their suppliers to upgrade worker rights standards and not simply shift to buying from suppliers in countries where there is less scrutiny. Improving worker rights in the shrimp industry, or in any global industry, should not result in workers losing their jobs or jobs moving to other countries.
Governments need to pass laws with strong, enforceable worker protections.
Finally, what will really make a difference is if all workers are allowed to exercise their rights—especially the right to organize and join unions of their choice—and bargain with employers to improve their livelihoods.
Workers' sad story deemed all too typical
The Solidarity Center report includes several accounts of specific cases that illustrate the kinds of abuse found in some parts of the Thai shrimp industry.
One came from testimony given to investigators by female migrant workers following the September 2006 police raid of the Ranya Paew shrimp processing plant in Thailand (see also “Ambassador's account” above).
It is particularly poignant in light of the recent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Burma, and last week's horrific Cyclone Nargis, whose devastating impacts may drive even more desperate Burmese to seek work on Thai shrimp farms (Larson E et al. 2008):
“Three female migrant workers were picked up by a job broker and taken to the Thai-Burma border, where they joined other Burmese migrants. Forty-three migrants then took a boat to reach Ranong in Thailand, where a Thai guide led them through mountain routes for three days before finding transportation to Bangkok. In Bangkok, they stayed at the broker's sister's house for three days.
“The broker met them in Bangkok and took the three of them to the Ranya Paew seafood processing factory. At the factory they learned from the boss that the broker had taken a fee of 13,000 baht ($366) per person. They were also told that this was to be deducted from their pay. At midnight the next day they started work on their first shift, which lasted 18 hours until 6:00 pm the following evening.
“They were beaten if they did not get up or if they were not on time for work. Between the three of them, they peeled around 110 pounds of shrimp a day and received a payment of 600 baht ($17) every 15 days.”
We do not believe that there are easy answers to the problems highlighted by the new report, with even its authors opposing a boycott.
We present this information because farmed shrimp has become a huge part of America's seafood supply, and consumers ought to know about its hidden human and environmental costs.