Tags: thailand | shrimp | slaves

Shrimp Peeled by Slaves Being Relished at Your Holiday Party?

Image: Shrimp Peeled by Slaves Being Relished at Your Holiday Party?

Workers at a shrimp factory on the outskirts of Bangkok.  (Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)

By    |   Tuesday, 15 Dec 2015 06:26 AM

Thailand is one of the world's biggest shrimp providers, helped in part by pervasive human trafficking to supply the labor for the country's $7 billion seafood export industry, and much of the shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves is reaching the U.S. and could be on your holiday table.

The problem is fueled by corruption and complicity among police and authorities. Arrests and prosecutions are rare. Raids can end up sending migrants without proper paperwork to jail, while owners go unpunished.

More than 2,000 trapped fishermen have been freed this year as a result of an ongoing Associated Press investigative series into slavery in the Thai seafood industry. The reports also have led to a dozen arrests, millions of dollars' worth of seizures and proposals for new federal laws.

Hundreds of shrimp peeling sheds are hidden in plain sight on residential streets or behind walls with no signs in Samut Sakhon, a port town an hour outside Bangkok. The AP found one factory that was enslaving dozens of workers, and runaway migrants led rights groups to the Gig shed and a third facility. All three sheds held 50 to 100 people each, many locked inside.

Last month, AP journalists followed and filmed trucks loaded with freshly peeled shrimp from the Gig shed to major Thai exporting companies and then, using U.S. customs records and Thai industry reports, tracked it globally. They also traced similar connections from another factory raided six months earlier.

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.

European and Asian import and export records are confidential, but the Thai companies receiving shrimp tracked by the AP all say they ship to Europe and Asia as well.

The businesses that responded condemned the practices that lead to these conditions. Many said they were launching investigations when told their supply chains were linked to people held against their will in sheds like the Gig factory, which sat behind a gate off a busy street, between railroad tracks and a river.

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.

Shrimp is the most-loved seafood in the U.S., with Americans downing 1.3 billion pounds every year, or about 4 pounds per person. Once a luxury reserved for special occasions, it became cheap enough for stir-fries and scampis when Asian farmers started growing it in ponds three decades ago. Thailand quickly dominated the market and now sends nearly half of its supply to the U.S.

The Southeast Asian country is one of the worst human trafficking hubs on earth. It has been blacklisted for the past two years by the U.S. State Department, which cited complicity by Thai officials. The European Union issued a warning earlier this year that tripled seafood import tariffs, and is expected to decide next month whether to impose an outright ban.

Consumers enjoy the convenience of dumping shrimp straight from freezer to skillet, the result of labor-intensive peeling and cleaning. Unable to keep up with demand, exporters get their supply from peeling sheds that are sometimes nothing more than crude garages adjacent to the boss's house. Supply chains are so complicated that, on any given day, buyers may not know exactly where the shrimp comes from.

The Thai Frozen Foods Association lists about 50 registered shrimp sheds in the country. However, hundreds more operate in Samut Sakhon, the country's main shrimp processing region. Here the humid air hangs thick with the smell of dead fish. Refrigerated trucks with seafood logos barrel down streets straddled by huge processing plants. Just as ubiquitous are the small pickups loaded with migrant workers from neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar being taken to gut, fillet, de-vein and peel the seafood that fuels this town's economy.

Abuse is common in Samut Sakhon. An International Labor Organization report estimated 10,000 migrant children aged 13 to 15 work in the city. Another U.N. agency study found nearly 60 percent of Burmese laborers toiling in its seafood processing industry were victims of forced labor.

Under the U.S. government's definition, forced labor and debt bondage are considered slavery.

Tracking shipments from just the Gig Peeling Factory highlights how fast and far slave-peeled shrimp can travel.

The AP followed trucks from the shed over five days to major Thai exporters. One load pulled into N&N Foods, owned by one of the world's largest seafood companies, Tokyo-based Maruha Nichiro Foods. A second drove to Okeanos Food, a subsidiary of another leading global seafood supplier, Thai Union. Still more went to Kongphop Frozen Foods and The Siam Union Frozen Foods, which have customers in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia. All the exporters and parent companies that responded said they abhor human rights abuses.

Shrimp can mix with different batches of seafood as it is packaged, branded and shipped. At that point, there's no way to tell where any individual piece was peeled. Once it reaches American restaurants, hospitals, universities and military chow halls, all the shrimp from those four Thai processors is considered associated with slavery, according to United Nations and U.S. standards.

U.S. customs records linked the exported shrimp to more than 40 U.S. brands, including popular names such as Sea Best, Waterfront Bistro and Aqua Star. The AP found shrimp products with the same labels in more than 150 stores across America – from Honolulu to New York City to a tiny West Virginia town of 179 people. The grocery store chains have tens of thousands of U.S. outlets where millions of Americans shop.

In addition, the Thai distributors state on their websites that they export to Europe and Asia, although specific records are confidential. AP reporters in Germany, Italy, England and Ireland researched shrimp in supermarkets and found several brands sourced from Thailand. Those stores said the names of their Thai distributors are proprietary. Royal Greenland — an importer whose shrimp was seen under store brands as a product from Thailand but has not been linked to the sheds — said it now has shifted its sourcing to Ecuador.

By all accounts, the work at the Gig shed was off the books — and thus even businesses carefully tracking the provenance of the shrimp called the AP's findings a surprise.

"I want to eliminate this," said Dirk Leuenberger, CEO of Aqua Star. "I think it's disgusting that it's even remotely part of my business."

Some, including Red Lobster, Whole Foods and H-E-B Supermarkets, said they were confident — based on assurances from their Thai supplier — that their particular shrimp was not associated with abusive factories. That Thai supplier admits it hadn't known where it was getting all its shrimp and sent a note outlining corrective measures to U.S. businesses demanding answers last week.

"I am deeply disappointed that despite our best efforts we have discovered this potential instance of illegal labor practice in our supply chain," Thai Union CEO Thiraphong Chansiri wrote. His statement acknowledged "that illicitly sourced product may have fraudulently entered its supply chain" and confirmed a supplier "was doing business with an unregistered pre-processor in violation of our code of conduct."

After AP brought its findings to dozens of global retailers, Thai Union announced it will bring all shrimp-processing in-house by the end of the year and provide jobs to workers whose factories close as a result. It's a significant step from the industry leader whose international brands include John West in Britain, Petit Navire in France and Mareblu in Italy; shrimp from abusive factories in Thailand has not been associated with them.

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.'"

The State Department has not slapped Thailand with sanctions applied to other countries with similarly weak human trafficking records because it is a strategically critical Southeast Asian ally. And federal authorities say they can't enforce U.S. laws that ban importing goods produced by forced labor, citing an exception for items consumers can't get from another source. Thai shrimp slips right through that loophole.

Thailand is not the only source of slave-tainted seafood in the U.S., where nearly 90 percent of shrimp is imported.

The State Department's annual anti-trafficking reports have tied such seafood to 55 countries on six continents, including major suppliers to the U.S. Earlier this year, the AP uncovered a slave island in Benjina, Indonesia, where hundreds of migrant fishermen were trafficked from Thailand and sometimes locked in a cage. Last month, food giant Nestle disclosed that its own Thai suppliers were abusing and enslaving workers and has vowed to force change.

Human trafficking in Thailand also stretches far beyond the seafood industry. Earlier this year, high-ranking officials were implicated in a smuggling syndicate involving tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar. A crackdown came after dozens of victims died in Thai jungle camps because they were unable to pay ransoms.

The junta military government has singled out the country's fisheries sector for reforms. It says it has passed new laws to crack down on illegal activities aboard fishing boats and inside seafood-processing factories and is working to register undocumented migrant workers.

"There have been some flaws in the laws, and we have been closing those gaps," said M.L. Puntarik Smiti, the Thai Labor Ministry's permanent secretary. "The government has made human trafficking a national agenda. The policy is clear, and every department is working in the same direction. ... In the past, most punishments focused on the laborers, but now more focus is put on punishing the employers."

Police point to a new law that goes after officers involved in human trafficking, and say rooting out corruption and complicity is a priority.

Critics argue, however, the changes have been largely cosmetic. Former slaves repeatedly described how police took them into custody and then sold them to agents who trafficked them again into the seafood industry.

"There are laws and regulations, but they are being selectively enforced to benefit one side," said Patima Tungpuchayakul, manager of the Thai-based nonprofit Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation. "When you find there is a child working 16 hours a day and getting paid ($2.75) ... the government has to put a stop to this."

The peeling sheds that supply to major Thai seafood companies are supposed to be certified and inspected, but the stamp of approval does not always prevent abuses.

Modern-day slavery is often just part of doing business in Thailand's seafood export capital. Some shed owners believe they are providing jobs to poor migrant workers in need. Police are paid to look the other way and say officers frequently do not understand that practices such as forced labor and debt bondage are against the law.

"We just need to educate everyone on this issue," said Jaruwat Vaisaya, deputy commissioner of Bangkok's Metropolitan Police. "I don't think they know what they're doing is called human trafficking, but they must know it's wrong."

The Gig Peeling Factory is now closed, with workers moved to another shed linked to the same owners, said Chaiyuth Thomya, the superintendent of Samut Sakhon's main police station. A Gig owner reached by phone by the AP declined to comment.


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Thailand is one of the world's biggest shrimp providers, helped in part by pervasive human trafficking to supply the labor for the country's $7 billion seafood export industry, and much of the shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves is reaching the U.S. and could be on your holiday table.
thailand, shrimp, slaves
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2015-26-15
Tuesday, 15 Dec 2015 06:26 AM
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