Know Your Supplier (Continued): Forced Labor in Thai Shrimp Processing Industry

At the end of 2012, investigative reporter Matt Rusling published a story detailing his investigation into the abuse of migrant labor in the Thai shrimp industry on his on-line publication Borderless News.

Mr. Rusling’s story traces the phenomena of forced labor in the Thai shrimp processing sector back to Mae Sot, “a bustling border town teeming with Burmese workers of every religion and ethnic stripe.” In Mae Sot, a town nearly 500 kilometers northwest of Bangkok, “duplicitous brokers” approach Burmese workers “who recruit and take them deep into Thailand and sell them into debt bondage.” Mr. Rusling introduces readers to Phyo, a 23-year old woman who was taken from Mae Sot to a shrimp peeling house near Bangkok. After a harrowing journey, Phyo arrived at the peeling house where “she learned she would have to work five years to pay off the debt she had incurred in transportation fee.” Returning to Burma was not an option: “Armed guards prevented her from leaving the factory, where she often worked 22-hour days with little to eat, and where she began passing out due to exhaustion and lack of food.” Eventually Phyo escaped by climbing over a wall, was arrested by Thai police, and deported out of the country. The story does not say whether the police who arrested Phyo investigated her story and arrested those responsible for her captivity. Given what we know about similar incidents, further investigation seems unlikely.

Mr. Rusling’s story additionally references an October 2010 study, published in January 2011 by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, detailing the pervasiveness of forced labor abuses in the shrimp processing industry in Samut Sakhon, a province to the immediate southwest of Bangkok. The study, conducted by the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN) and the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, begins by describing the importance of seafood processing to the province and the systematic nature of the abuse of migrant labor:


“Samut Sakhon Province in Thailand is among the largest seafood processing industrial areas in the entire country.  It is also among the top four coastal provinces in Thailand in attracting migrant workers, primarily from Myanmar (Burma).  Samut Sakhon has a resident population of approximately 450,000.  An additional 250,000 or more workers are Thai migrants, principally from northeastern Thailand, and another 160,000 to 200,000 are foreign migrants.  The majority of migrant workers and their families are from Burma, of whom it is estimated that 50% are of Mon ethnicity, 30% Burman, 10% Karen and 10% others (including Shan, Tawai, Kachin, and Pa-O).   According to Labour Rights Promotion Network’s (LPN) estimates, approximately 70,000 workers from Burma were registered in the province as of 2007, a number that increased to 120,000 by mid-2009.  Research by LPN indicates that exploitation of Burmese migrants is systematic, occurring often through debt bondage and labor subcontracting without institutional accountability.   LPN has estimated that, for roughly 20-30% of Burmese migrant workers, the coercive and deceptive means by which they are recruited into,and thenretained, in exploitative working conditions constitute trafficking into forced labor.  Establishing a more robust estimate of labor trafficking, however, has posed a significant challenge.”

Meeting the challenge of effectively measuring the extent of the problem, LPN and JHSPH developed a methodology for investigation that included surveys of a sample of Burmese migrant labor that had worked in the province. The survey results again confirmed the prevalence of migrant labor abuse in the industry, with “a total of 193 of 396 respondents (33.6%)” providing responses indicating that they had been “trafficked into forced labor.”


The report also highlights interviews with various parties in Thailand, including a police official in Samut Sakhon who explained:


“There are too many migrant workers and if I see they have no work permit, I arrest them and send them back to the border. Many of the migrant workers work in shrimp and fish markets, but not many Thai people do, since they think work in shrimp and fish markets is dirty. Samut Sakhon has so many migrant workers but still it needs more workers. . . .”

The interviews include former employees of peeling sheds, including one woman who reported:


“I came to Thailand in 2006 and worked as a construction worker for a month where they paid me 100 Baht per day. But because my performance in construction was not good, the broker then sent me to work as a maid which only lasted 15 days because the broker was mad at me for not being able to communicate, so she beat me up before she threw me out in the street….One day, a Karen woman took me away and introduced me to her friend and I finally got a job as a shrimp peeler in a small factory where I earned 400­500 Baht every 15 days but had to work from 5 pm until 5 am the next day. I had an accident from work while I was loading shrimps and now I still have some sharp pain inside my chest. The supervisor won’t let me eat if I’m not finished with my work. He beat me for eating and for fallen shrimps. I ran away after he beat me and started to work at the CD factory for 3-­4 months where I had to work early in the morning and finish again in the next day.” (MW4)


One key finding of the LPN and JHPSH study was that trafficking was not limited to the seafood sector of Thailand, although the review of data regarding those involved in factory work suggests “a slightly elevated risk” of trafficking – with 34.7% of those investigated showing indications of being trafficked. Nevertheless, the proportion of Burmese migrant laborers working in the seafood processing sector of Samut Sakhon that experienced forced labor was massive: “The prevalence of forced labor among Burmese migrant workers in the seafood processing industry was 57.3%, with unregistered workers evidencing a higher prevalence (67.7%) than registered workers (52.5%) . . . .”

I’ll say again that I don’t know how anyone can read through the accounts of credible accomplished reporters and serious, objective researchers and not be outraged. In 2012, we imported over $1.1 billion worth of shrimp from Thailand – a 30% decline from the nearly $1.6 billion in shrimp we imported from Thailand in 2011.   That is an incredible amount of shrimp, an incredible amount of money.


The American seafood processing sector is currently under fire for abuses of guestworker labor. Violations of law have been appropriately raised by non-governmental organizations and should be fully investigated by our government. The practice of abusing workers to cut production costs has to be stopped. But at the same time, cracking down on labor abuse in domestic plants while allowing seafood purchasers the option of getting even cheaper product from countries that tolerate the commission of even more grotesque labor abuses is absurd. What is the comparative advantage here? An absence of humanity? An absence of decency?


Mr. Rusling’s article describes the U.S. government’s formal response to these outrages as kicking the can down the road:


The U.S. State Department condemns the practice of human trafficking and publishes an annual report on the problem, which assigns a ranking for each country based on its efforts to combat the crime. In 2012, Thailand for the third year in a row was placed on a watch list as having made efforts to tackle the issue but falling short of international standards. Ordinarily, that would trigger an automatic downgrade and the possibility of sanctions, but U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a rare waiver on grounds that Thailand has written a new plan to combat human trafficking.

The U.S. State Department is currently faced with what it is going to do about Thailand in 2013. While waivers were provided in the past, the problem continues to exist with more and more migrant workers (including women and children) being exploited, abused and sometimes murdered.   Until our State Department gets serious with condemnation of these abuses and institutes sanctions, these labor abuses will continue unabated. One way to address this issue (absent US Government intervention) is for importers of Thai shrimp to know their supplier. As long as the importing industry continues to import shrimp ignorant or apathetic to how it is produced, they are effectively condoning these horrific practices. Importers should do their due diligence. They should know their supplier in an effort to help stop this abuse from occurring in the production of shrimp that reaches our supermarkets, restaurants and retail stores.


But I’m not holding my breath and we as consumers should be outraged at what is happening in Thailand and demand that corrective measures be taken.  The strongest demand we can make is to know where the shrimp originates at the time of purchase and if it’s from Thailand, make your outrage known by refusing to purchase this product until the stories being written by independent investigative journalists explain how much the Thai shrimp industry has done to eliminate inhumane conditions.


With respect to the shrimp industry, I often try to think back and recall when, exactly, earning a dollar became more important than human compassion. I can’t remember.


John Williams


Read Matt Rusling’s “In Thailand, forced labor in the shrimp industry” here:


Subscribe, for free, to Borderless News here:


Download “Estimating Labor Trafficking: A Study of Burmese Migrant Workers in Samut Sakhon, Thailand” conducted by the Labour Rights Promotion Network (LPN) and the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) Center for Refugee and Disaster Response and published by the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking here:


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