Shrimp sold by global supermarkets is peeled by slave labourers in Thailand
Under the US government’s definition, forced labour and debt bondage are considered slavery.
In the Gig shed, employees’ salaries were pegged to how fast their fingers could move. Tin Nyo Win and his wife peeled about 80kg of shrimp for just £2.65 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 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 slippery floors were destroyed by briny water.
Lunch breaks were only 15 minutes, and migrants were yelled at for talking. Several workers said a woman had 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.
“We had to get up at 3am and then start working continuously,” said Eae Hpaw, 16, whose arms were a patchwork of scars from infections and allergies caused by the shrimp. “We stopped working around 7pm. We would take a shower and sleep. Then we would start again.”
After being roughed up one night by a supervisor, five months into their captivity, Tin Nyo Win and his wife decided they couldn’t take the threats any more.
“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,’” he said.
The next morning, the couple saw an opportunity when the door wasn’t being watched. They ran. Less than 24 hours later, Tin Nyo Win’s wife was captured at a market by the shed manager. He watched helplessly as she was dragged away by her hair – he was terrified for her and for the baby she was carrying.
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 US, Canada, Europe, Asia and Australia. All the exporters and parent companies that responded said they abhor human rights abuses. There is no suggestion that any of these companies were aware of the use of slave labourers.
Shrimp is mixed with different batches of seafood as it is packaged 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 UN and US standards.
US customs records linked the exported shrimp to more than 40 US 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 supermarket chains have tens of thousands of US outlets where millions of Americans shop. (Again, there is no suggestion that any of these companies were aware of the use of slave labourers.)
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.
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.”
Many companies asked for more details. Some, including Whole Foods and HEB supermarkets, said they were confident their shrimp was not associated with abusive factories.
The Thai company that supplies most of the shrimp to the US admitted that it hadn’t known where all of it was coming from, and sent a note outlining corrective measures to US businesses demanding answers last week.
“I am deeply disappointed that despite our best efforts we have discovered this potential instance of illegal labour 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 would 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 US 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 south-east Asian ally. Federal authorities say they can’t enforce US laws that ban importing goods produced by forced labour, citing an exception for items consumers can’t get from another source. Thai shrimp slips through that loophole.
Thailand is not the only source of slave-tainted seafood in the US, where nearly 90% of shrimp is imported.