On Tuesday, CNN’s Freedom Project posted an article and interview with anti-trafficking expert Siddharth Kara on the abuse of bonded labor in the Bangladeshi shrimp industry.

 To do full justice to the piece, please watch the video and read the article in full at the link below.  Mr. Kara’s investigation found labor abuse at every stage of shrimp production in the Bangladeshi industry.

Here, one finds four stages to Bangladesh’s shrimp industry supply chain: 1 shrimp fry (baby shrimp) collection, shrimp farming, the distribution to processors, and shrimp processing.  Each one of these stages is tainted by some form of severe labor exploitation.

He also explains why what happens in Bangladesh has an impact here:

Almost all shrimp exports from Bangladesh are bound for the U.S., the EU, and Japan. This processor stage is rumored to be replete with forced labor, but I had little success in accessing the plants as I was angrily turned away at gunpoint from all of them except one.

By my calculation, roughly one out of every 57 shrimp consumed around the world are tainted by forced labor, bonded labor, or child labor from Bangladesh alone.

As the average U.S. citizen consumes approximately two kilograms of shrimp per year, this means that each American eats roughly one to three pieces of tainted shrimp each year, just from Bangladesh.

Mr. Kara’s overall findings confirm the conclusions of an in-depth investigation conducted by Verité of the Bangladeshi shrimp sector.  The exhaustive report issued by Verité last month – “Research on Indicators of Forced Labor in the Supply Chain of Shrimp in Bangladesh” – also confirmed labor abuses at every stage of shrimp production in the Bangladeshi industry.

An updated Solidarity Center report “The Plight of Shrimp-Processing Workers of Southwestern Bangladesh” published in January 2012 argued that labor rights have been deteriorating after “reforms” supposedly had been implemented:

However, by August 2010, Bangladeshi shrimp workers saw progress made toward gaining their rights not only halted but, in some cases, reversed by shrimp-processing companies, which had begun to undercut nascent unions while failing to comply with wage and hour regulations.

 The executive summary of the report provides a stark description of the victims of labor exploitation in the industry:

The predominantly female, low-income and largely uneducated workforce employed by major shrimp processors in the southwestern region of Bangladesh faces inadequate safety and health protections, receives near slave (or no) wages and has nowhere to turn for assistance.

Continued bad publicity for labor abuses appears to be harming the Bangladeshi industry in the U.S. market.  The amount of Bangladeshi shrimp consumed in the United States continues to decline substantially.  In 2006, we imported almost $190 million worth of shrimp from Bangladesh.  Last year, we imported less than $60 million.  This year, the amount imported has declined by almost a third compared to last year.

Less exports from Bangladesh means less jobs in an extremely poor country.  Thousands of lives are directly affected by decisions to not purchase Bangladeshi shrimp.  But it is hard to see how deplorable labor conditions benefit poor Bangladeshi.  Instead, as the Verité report explained, the exploitation of poor people in Bangladesh has benefitted a limited group:

While shrimp cultivation and processing provides livelihoods for the poor, small farmers, intermediaries, and exporters, the profits generated from shrimp exports mainly accrue to high-end importers/foreign buyers, and politically powerful elites in the region such as processors, absentee landowners, large farmers, and politicians

Who are the foreign buyers?  In the United States, they are pretty big businesses.  A review of commercial shipment information over the last couple of years indicates that Bangladeshi shrimp entered the United States under a number of different brands, from “Walmart” (imported by Suram Trading) to “Royal Tiger” (Suram Trading) to “Neptune” (Red Chamber) to “Xcellent” (Chicken of the Sea).

In the last couple of years, shrimp was exported by nearly two dozen different Bangladeshi companies.  It is tough to imagine that each and every one of these suppliers was thoroughly vetted to ensure that labor abuses were not part of their supply chain.  But, as of this moment, the only assurance for consumers that labor abuses are being addressed is the importing industry itself.

We do have a law on the books that bans the importation of goods produced by slave or child labor.  However, that law has an exception you could drive a whole fleet of trawlers through:  it only applies if the domestic industry can, on their own, supply all of domestic demand.  In other words, unless we shrimpers starting pulling up a heck of a lot more shrimp, nothing can be done under current law to prevent the importation of shrimp made by slave or child labor.

If one of the “comparative advantages” of imported shrimp over domestic shrimp is the availability of slave or child labor, we should all be able to agree to take it off the table.  We hear often how shrimpers are the horse and carriage to aquaculture’s automobile.  I guess in response I would say that shrimping is a tradition worth preserving; slavery and child labor ought to stay dead and buried.

 

John Williams

Read about Verité’s Multi-Country Study on Research on Indicators of Forced Labor in the Production of Goods, including research regarding the Bangladeshi shrimp sector:   http://www.verite.org/research/indicators_of_forced_labor

Read Verité’s report, “Research on Indicators of Forced Labor in the Supply Chain of Shrimp in Bangladesh”:    http://www.verite.org/sites/default/files/images/Research%20on%20Indicators%20of%20Forced%20Lab or%20in%20the%20Bangladesh%20Shrimp%20Sector__9.16.pdf

Read the Solidarity Center’s report, “The Plight of Shrimp-Processing Workers of Southwestern Bangladesh”: http://www.solidaritycenter.org/Files/pubs_bangladesh_shrimpreport2012.pdf

Read the Solidarity Center’s short summary of the report: http://www.solidaritycenter.org/content.asp?contentid=1430