On Monday night, Congress released the text of the “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014,” outlining the spending of a trillion dollars for the operation of the federal government. The compromise bill includes a number of provisions of relevance to the commercial seafood industry, including a section that would, if enacted, afford greater flexibility to the seafood industry in the employment of H-2B non-immigrants working in the industry.
In addition, the omnibus bill requires that funds made available for “Development Assistance” to Bangladesh “shall be made available for programs to improve labor conditions by strengthening the capacity of independent workers’ organizations in Bangladesh’s readymade garment, shrimp, and fish export sectors.” The continued focus on improving labor conditions in Bangladesh’s shrimp sector – following the denial last year of beneficial tariff rates under the Generalized System of Preferences to Bangladeshi exports – is important.
The release of the bill’s language comes the same week as the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) published a new report, “Impossibly Cheap: Abuse and Injustice in Bangladesh’s Shrimp Industry.” The EJF’s report documents severe abuse within the industry, concluding that despite the profitability of the sector “most of the workers engaged in the shrimp supply chain are poor and are being pushed further into poverty as a result of exploitative and often abusive practices.”
EJF’s report describes a supply chain wherein the price for farmed shrimp “are largely dictated by the Bangladesh Frozen Foods Exporters Association (BFFEA)” such that “farmers are regularly paid well under the true value of their produce, leading them to take loans and get into debt to cover costs and other expenses.” In result, prices for farmed shrimp are reported to have dropped in recent years.
With respect to workers in the shrimp processing industry, “EJF’s investigation revealed clear violations of the 2006 Bangladesh Labour Act (BLA) in the country’s shrimp-processing industry, including substandard pay, excessive working hours, unpaid overtime, and delayed payments.” EJF’s report provided anecdotal portraits of those in an industry where “73 per cent of contract workers received less than the nationally established minimum wage,” a minimum wage that at $34 a month is “one of the lowest in Asia.”
Amina is a 20-year-old permanent worker at Jalalabad Seafood Ltd shrimp-processing factory, where she has worked for five years and is paid 3,200 taka ($41) per month. She works 12 hours a day, seven days a week and says that her supervisors become angry if employees request a day off. When her daughter was born, her employers, who required that she show a doctor’s certificate, gave her one-week maternity leave. Working long hours with their hands submerged in water, Amina says that many processing workers get swollen fingers, infections and fever; however, if they are absent for two days or more due to illness, they are not paid for the entire week. Conditions began to improve following the establishment of a union at the factory, though the company quickly broke this up, with the organizers fired, beaten and threatened. Amina told EJF of her desire to see the union reestablished and standards improved.
While the industry is lightly regulated, the financial health of the shrimp processing sector in Bangladesh is insured by the government. EJF describes the Bangladeshi shrimp industry as “heavily supported by the Government through credit and export subsidies . . .”
Through November of 2013, Bangladesh shipped nearly $50 million worth of shrimp to the U.S. market. While these shipments constituted less than one percent of the total volume of shrimp imported into the U.S. in 2013, the figures posted in 2013 represent nearly a forty percent increase over the volume and value of Bangladeshi shrimp imported in 2012.
The significant increase in sourcing shrimp intended for U.S. consumers from Bangladesh occurs simultaneous to greater public awareness of serious abuses of labor in the shrimp industry – as well as other commercial production industries – of Bangladesh.
Absent the real and serious concerns regarding brutal and inexcusable labor abuse, there is nothing inherently wrong with sourcing shrimp from Bangladesh. But for those companies that continue to do so, the fact that the issues with that industry now warrant specific language in the omnibus appropriations bill should emphasize the need to get serious about ridding the shrimp supply chain of labor abuses.
As we’ve said before, the consequences of continuing to ignore or, worse, papering over the problem will become increasingly severe. On the other hand, fixing the problem should not be all that hard. It is just a question of priorities.
Review the “Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014”:
Read the Environmental Justice Foundation’s report “Impossibly Cheap: Abuse and Injustice in Bangladesh’s Shrimp Industry”: http://ejfoundation.org/shrimp/impossiblycheapreport
Read the Southern Shrimp Alliance’s report Know Your Supplier: Labor Abuses in Bangladesh’s Farmed-Shrimp Industry: http://redwoodserver.com/shrimp/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/SSA-BG-worker-rights-paper1.pdf