Know Your Supplier Continued: Eliminating Child and Forced Labor from the Shrimp Supply Chain

The U.S. Department of Labor released an updated “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor” on Wednesday, as required by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005. In the fourth edition of the report, shrimp is once again highlighted as a commodity produced by both child and forced labor. Shrimp from Bangladesh and Cambodia is listed for child labor, shrimp from Burma is listed for forced labor, while shrimp from Thailand is listed for both child and forced labor.

The report’s release follows a number of press stories last week highlighting continuing labor abuses in the Thai shrimp industry. The work of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting resulted in a Washington Post article and PBS NewsHour story regarding forced labor abuses in Thai shrimp peeling sheds. Separately, the Asia Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch published an in-depth report regarding how shrimp produced by forced labor in a Phatthana Seafood processing plant was likely ending up in Walmarts and Sam’s Clubs in the United States. And the Ecologist Film Unit, along with Link TV and SwedWatch, released a short documentary film exposing barbaric working conditions on some Thai fishing vessels that supply shrimp feed manufacturers.

As Thailand is far and away the single largest supplier of shrimp to the U.S. market, recurring findings of child and forced labor in the Thai seafood industry should sound alarms throughout the shrimp importing industry. The public announcement of one importer (Mazzetta Corporation) that it would not do business with a Thai exporter named in the PBS NewsHour story (Thai Royal) until the allegation were “adequately address[ed]” was encouraging.

Less encouraging was the public response of the CEO of Sea Garden Foods Co., Ltd. In a poorly thought out hardline defense of the Thai shrimp industry, the “exclusive distributor of Sureeth Farm’s organic shrimp products,” assured consumers that (1) the audits of “large Western buyers” would discover coercive labor practices at “major plants”; (2) child labor allegations were based on mistaken impressions of female Burmese workers who are “quite small due to genetics and nutrition factors”; and (3) that there was an ominous “clear political agenda” behind the allegations, with special reference to the imagined machinations of the AFL-CIO.

This response cannot be taken seriously. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons listed Thailand on its Tier 2 Watchlist. The accompanying report noted that Thai government efforts to address forced labor were compromised by pervasive corruption in law enforcement:

Corruption remained widespread among Thai law enforcement personnel, creating an enabling environment for human trafficking to prosper. Allegations of trafficking-related corruption persisted during the year, including in cases of sex trafficking and forced labor of migrants. There were credible reports that officials protected brothels, other commercial sex venues, and seafood and sweatshop facilities from raids and inspections, and that some officials engaged in commercial sex acts with child trafficking victims. In addition to well-known corruption of local-level police officers, there were also protective relationships between central-level specialist police officers and the trafficking hot-spot regions to which they were assigned.

The Department of State’s report additionally observed that local law enforcement officials had difficulty identifying forced labor violations, using the specific example of a shrimp factory raided in December of 2011:

Local law enforcement officials lacked awareness of the essential elements of human trafficking, and regularly misidentified victims with whom they came in contact. In December 2011, authorities raided a shrimp factory in southern Thailand and rescued four Burmese labor trafficking victims after receiving a tip from an NGO. Although authorities identified the four individuals as being subjected to debt bondage – a form of human trafficking – the government failed to certify them as trafficking victims, and refer them to protective services. Instead the victims were held in detention and subsequently deported, illustrating authorities’ insufficient understanding of the elements of human trafficking.       

It does no one in the seafood industry any good to pretend that this problem is not occurring or, worse, portray legitimate findings regarding labor abuses as slanderous assaults from protectionists out to get the Thai industry.

To be fair, my impression is that only a few in the shrimp importing business would agree with Sea Garden Foods’ strange worldview or, for that matter, Mazzetta’s public condemnation of labor abuses. Instead, silence prevails.

The problem with the ostrich approach – sticking your head in the sand and waiting for bad things to go away – is the sheer volume of the Thai shrimp entering our market. In the Human Rights Watch report, John Sifton explains that Walmart now claims to have “never” sourced shrimp from Phatthana, a seafood company implicated in the forced labor of Cambodian migrant workers. But this is clearly untrue. Phatthana is a major supplier of Walmart brand shrimp. On May 26th of this year, a container of frozen cooked and peeled white shrimp arrived at the port of Savannah from Phatthana. The “marks description” for the shrimp was “Walmart.” Another shipment from Phatthana went to the port of Houston earlier in May, also labeled Walmart brand. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of shrimp have entered the United States from Phatthana labeled “Walmart.”

 Walmart is not alone. Several other bills of lading show Phatthana shipping shrimp where the marks description was “Long John Silvers.” Further, Phatthana has also recently shipped shrimp labeled as “Tastee Choice,” “Pacific Supreme,” “Bay Point,” “Ocean Jewel,” “Southern Home,” “Cape Gourmet,” “Arctic Shores,” and “Preference,” to name just a few brands. Phatthana itself is connected to a larger Thai shrimp exporting conglomerate known generally as The Rubicon Group and the impact of that consortium on the U.S. market is enormous. A review of bills of lading indicates that the Rubicon Group accounted for at least 3.4% of the volume of all shrimp imports in 2008, 3.9% in 2009, 5.1% in 2010, and 4.1% in 2011. That works out to over 187 million pounds of shrimp shipped by one group in four years and that is enormous.

Similarly, no one in the shrimp importing industry should claim surprise that Thai exporters are using contract peeling houses. At least some Thai exporters have been open about this practice. For example, in a July filing with the U.S. Department of Commerce, Marine Gold Products Limited reported that it used these sheds to produce shrimp exported to the United States in 2011:

 … [Marine Gold] produced all merchandise under consideration at one facility, but did hire external peeling houses during the POR to de-head, peel, de-vein, and de-tail some of [Marine Gold’s] fresh shrimp, after which the processed shrimp was transported to [Marine Gold] for final processing into finished products. [Marine Gold] accounted for the fees paid to these external peeling houses as part of its labor costs.

We have no indication that the peeling sheds used by Marine Gold were involved in any sort of labor abuses, but the companies sourcing shrimp from Marine Gold should be asking about the practice.

That is the bottom line here. Everyone should be asking.

I have no firsthand knowledge of labor abuses in the Thai industry, but the independent investigations that have been conducted all come back with the conclusion that there is a serious problem that requires careful scrutiny. By artificially lowering production costs, the abuse of labor has a direct effect on the prices shrimpers see in the U.S. market. And it is the low prices of shrimp that seem to be driving efforts around the world to cut production prices anyway possible. Here, shrimpers squeeze every last nickel to be able to make a profitable trip and we’re still barely making it. It is the same throughout the planet. In Vietnam and India, shrimp farmers are using potentially harmful chemicals to ensure large harvests and ward off disease. In Thailand, accusations of illegal labor practices throughout the shrimp industry continue to fly.

Yes, low prices are great for the consumer. No question. Except these low prices have a cost. I feel like a teacher assigning homework here, but everyone in the industry should understand what exactly those costs are and I encourage you all to visit each of the links below to get more information.

 John Williams


Read the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2012 “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor”

Visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s website on Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act

Read the U.S. Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons’ 2012 Report: 

Read the Washington Post story by Jason Motlagh “In a World Hungry for Cheap Shrimp, Migrants Labor Overtime in Thai Sheds”

Watch the PBS NewHour story “Thai Shrimp Industry Exploits Workers to Whet Global Appetite for Cheap Shrimp” 

Read the report on Phatthana Seafood and Walmart. 

Watch the Ecologist Film Unit’s documentary film and read the Ecologist’s special report on “The Slavery Behind Our Seafood” 

Read Sea Garden Foods, Co. Ltd.’s “Rebuttal” to the PBS NewsHour story:

Read an excerpt from Marine Gold’s July 13th filing with the U.S. Department of Commerce


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