Know Your Supplier (Continued): “Bad Cocktail” – Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting Focus on Labor in Thai Shrimp Processing Industry

The work of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting investigating alleged labor abuses in the Thai shrimp processing sector is now featured on the Center’s website.  The project, titled “Bad Cocktail: Labor Abuse in Thailand’s Shrimp Industry,” confirmed many of the allegations that have been leveled against the Thai shrimp industry.  Specifically, independent peeling sheds often take advantage of migrant labor drawn from surrounding countries resulting in severe labor abuses.

Two reporters, Jason Motlagh and Stephen Sapienza, did incredible work within Thailand to painstakingly document labor abuses in the shrimp processing sector.  Their findings were reflected in national news stories about the problem.  The reporters found a lot more.

In one installment posted on the Pulitzer Center’s web-site, Mr. Motlagh relays the scene confronted by an activist following a raid on a peeling shed:

“Despite what he’d heard about the facility, the scene inside ‘shocked’ him so much that he struggled to control his emotions. Of the more than 80 Burmese workers rescued, six were between the ages of 12 and 14. Closed circuit video cameras monitored the premises. Barbed wire ringed the outer walls and workers slept crammed together in rooms with chicken wire overhead. A handgun belonging to a manager was found, along with a hidden door that opened to an underground cell where uncooperative workers were held.”

In an earlier installment, Mr. Motlagh describes labor conditions from the perspective of a migrant laborer:

“Over the next six months, Mi Oo kept his head down and peeled seven days a week during while his co-workers were subject to rampant abuse. When someone slowed down with cramps or complained of numb hands, they were warned maybe once, he says, and then slapped by the boss who prowled the floor. If they refused to go on, they were held in a cell underground. He recalls how one woman, number 48, was hit in the head with a chunk of ice. Another who buckled on the floor in tears was repeatedly kicked. A man found to have a cell phone was promptly beaten. “(It) was like hell,” said Mi Oo.”

Last week, Mr. Motlagh posted a profile of a “good” migrant broker in Thailand, but began the piece by describing how aberrational a “good” broker was in the industry:

“Crooked brokers are a dime a dozen in the underworld of the Thai shrimp processing industry. For a hefty fee, they smuggle Burmese migrant hopefuls across the border with the promise of better paying jobs in the hundreds of anonymous factories around Samut Sakhon province. More often than not, the migrants are stripped of their documents and sold to abusive factory owners who hold them in debt bondage, working them to the bone.”

The Pulitzer Center’s web-site also includes videos with both reporters.  In one video, Stephen Sapienza takes the time to fully describe what he saw in Thailand.  Mr. Sapienza also explains the challenges reporters face in getting stories:

“What surprised us about this project was how difficult it was to do this story.  Not a lot of people wanted to talk to us.  A lot of people, after they’d given us interviews, were scared about us using their image or using their information.  They thought there might be some backlash from some of the local peeling shed owners or perhaps even some of the police who they said were involved in this human trafficking and exploitation of migrant workers.”

In the video, Mr. Sapienza also expresses disbelief that Thai peeling sheds can continue to operate outside regulatory authority.  As the reporters observe, peeling plants are raided and shut down only to open somewhere else under a different name.  Yet, the shrimp peeled in these plants is sold to someone in Thailand.  And, more likely than not, that shrimp is exported, perhaps to the United States.

I don’t know how anyone can read through or watch the accounts of credible accomplished reporters and not be outraged.  Or, at the very least, be stirred to action.  Purchasing shrimp produced in this manner should not be an option.

John Williams


Read Jason Motlagh’s “Thailand:  The Migrant Reporter-Crusader”:

Read Jason Motlagh’s “Thailand:  A Migrant Worker’s Story”:

Read Jason Motlagh’s “Thailand:  A (Good) Migrant Broker”:

Watch reporter Stephen Sapienza talk about what reporters found in Thailand while investigating labor abuse in Thai shrimp processing sector:

Watch reporter Jason Motlagh’s two-minute video describing labor abuses in Thai peeling sheds:

Read the latest installments of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s “Bad Cocktail:  Labor Abuse in Thailand’s Shrimp Industry”:




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