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AP: Global supermarkets selling shrimp peeled by slaves

AP: Global supermarkets selling shrimp peeled by slaves

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Ian Pajer-Rogers |

Flickr/Zoriah

From the Associated Press:

by Margie Mason, Robin McDowell, Martha Mendoza, and Esther Htusan

SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand (AP) — Every morning at 2 a.m., they heard a kick on the door and a threat: Get up or get beaten. For the next 16 hours, No. 31 and his wife stood in the factory that owned them with their aching hands in ice water. They ripped the guts, heads, tails and shells off shrimp bound for overseas markets, including grocery stores and all-you-can-eat buffets across the United States.

After being sold to the Gig Peeling Factory, they were at the mercy of their Thai bosses, trapped with nearly 100 other Burmese migrants. Children worked alongside them, including a girl so tiny she had to stand on a stool to reach the peeling table. Some had been there for months, even years, getting little or no pay. Always, someone was watching.

No names were ever used, only numbers given by their boss — Tin Nyo Win was No. 31.

Pervasive human trafficking has helped turn Thailand into one of the world's biggest shrimp providers. Despite repeated promises by businesses and government to clean up the country's $7 billion seafood export industry, an Associated Press investigation has found shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves is reaching the U.S., Europe and Asia.

The problem is fueled by corruption and complicity among police and authorities. Arrests and prosecutions are rare. Raids can end up sending migrants without proper paperwork to jail, while owners go unpunished.

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More than 2,000 trapped fishermen have been freed this year as a result of an ongoing Associated Press investigative series into slavery in the Thai seafood industry. The reports also have led to a dozen arrests, millions of dollars' worth of seizures and proposals for new federal laws.

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Hundreds of shrimp peeling sheds are hidden in plain sight on residential streets or behind walls with no signs in Samut Sakhon, a port town an hour outside Bangkok. The AP found one factory that was enslaving dozens of workers, and runaway migrants led rights groups to the Gig shed and a third facility. All three sheds held 50 to 100 people each, many locked inside.

As Tin Nyo Win soon found out for himself, there's no easy escape. One woman had been working at Gig for eight years. Another man ended up peeling shrimp there after breaking free from an equally brutal factory.

"I was shocked after working there a while, and I realized there was no way out," said Tin Nyo Win, 22, who has a baby face and teeth stained red from chewing betel nut.

"I told my wife, 'We're in real trouble. If something ends up going wrong, we're going to die.'"

Last month, AP journalists followed and filmed trucks loaded with freshly peeled shrimp from the Gig shed to major Thai exporting companies and then, using U.S. customs records and Thai industry reports, tracked it globally. They also traced similar connections from another factory raided six months earlier, and interviewed more than two dozen workers from both sites.

U.S. customs records show the shrimp made its way into the supply chains of major U.S. food stores and retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Dollar General and Petco, along with restaurants such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden.

It also entered the supply chains of some of America's best-known seafood brands and pet foods, including Chicken of the Sea and Fancy Feast, which are sold in grocery stores from Safeway and Schnucks to Piggly Wiggly and Albertsons. AP reporters went to supermarkets in all 50 states and found shrimp products from supply chains tainted with forced labor.

European and Asian import and export records are confidential, but the Thai companies receiving shrimp tracked by the AP all say they ship to Europe and Asia as well.

The businesses that responded condemned the practices that lead to these conditions. Many said they were launching investigations when told their supply chains were linked to people held against their will in sheds like the Gig factory, which sat behind a gate off a busy street, between railroad tracks and a river.

Inside the large warehouse, toilets overflowed with feces, and the putrid smell of raw sewage wafted from an open gutter just outside the work area. Young children ran barefoot through suffocating dorm rooms. Entire families labored side-by-side at rows of stainless steel counters piled high with tubs of shrimp.

Tin Nyo Win and his wife, Mi San, were cursed for not peeling fast enough and called "cows" and "buffalos." They were allowed to go outside for food only if one of them stayed behind as insurance against running away.

But escaping was all they could think about.

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Shrimp is the most-loved seafood in the U.S., with Americans downing 1.3 billion pounds every year, or about 4 pounds per person. Once a luxury reserved for special occasions, it became cheap enough for stir-fries and scampis when Asian farmers started growing it in ponds three decades ago. Thailand quickly dominated the market and now sends nearly half of its supply to the U.S.

The Southeast Asian country is one of the worst human trafficking hubs on earth. It has been blacklisted for the past two years by the U.S. State Department, which cited complicity by Thai officials. The European Union issued a warning earlier this year that tripled seafood import tariffs, and is expected to decide next month whether to impose an outright ban.

Consumers enjoy the convenience of dumping shrimp straight from freezer to skillet, the result of labor-intensive peeling and cleaning. Unable to keep up with demand, exporters get their supply from peeling sheds that are sometimes nothing more than crude garages adjacent to the boss's house. Supply chains are so complicated that, on any given day, buyers may not know exactly where the shrimp comes from.

The Thai Frozen Foods Association lists about 50 registered shrimp sheds in the country. However, hundreds more operate in Samut Sakhon, the country's main shrimp processing region. Here the humid air hangs thick with the smell of dead fish. Refrigerated trucks with seafood logos barrel down streets straddled by huge processing plants. Just as ubiquitous are the small pickups loaded with migrant workers from neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar being taken to gut, fillet, de-vein and peel the seafood that fuels this town's economy.

Abuse is common in Samut Sakhon. An International Labor Organization report estimated 10,000 migrant children aged 13 to 15 work in the city. Another U.N. agency study found nearly 60 percent of Burmese laborers toiling in its seafood processing industry were victims of forced labor.

Tin Nyo Win and his wife were taken to the Gig Peeling Factory in July when they made the long drive from Myanmar across the border, crammed so tightly into a truck with other workers that they could barely breathe. Like many migrants, they were lured from home by a broker with promises of good-paying jobs, and came without visas or work permits.

After being sold to the Gig shed, the couple learned they would have to work off what was considered their combined worth — $830. It was an insurmountable debt.

Because they were illegal workers, the owners constantly threatened to call police to keep them in line. Even documented migrants were vulnerable because the boss held onto identification papers so they could not leave.

Under the U.S. government's definition, forced labor and debt bondage are considered slavery.

In the Gig shed, employees' salaries were pegged to how fast their fingers could move. Tin Nyo Win and his wife peeled about 175 pounds of shrimp for just $4 a day, less than half of what they were promised. A female Thai manager, who slapped and cursed workers, often cut their wages without explanation. After they bought gloves and rubber boots, and paid monthly "cleaning fees" inside the trash-strewn shed, almost nothing was left.

Employees said they had to work even when they were ill. Seventeen children peeled alongside adults, sometimes crying, at stations where paint chipped off the walls and slick floors were eaten away by briny water.

Lunch breaks were only 15 minutes, and migrants were yelled at for talking too much. Several workers said a woman died recently because she didn't get proper medical care for her asthma. Children never went to school and began peeling shrimp just an hour later than adults.

"We had to get up at 3 in the morning and then start working continuously," said Eae Hpaw, 16, whose arms were a patchwork of scars from infections and allergies caused by the shrimp. "We stopped working around 7 in the evening. We would take a shower and sleep. Then we would start again."

After being roughed up one night by a supervisor, five months into their captivity, Tin Nyo Win and his wife decided they couldn't take the threats anymore.

"They would say, 'There's a gun in the boss's car and we're going to come and shoot you, and no one will know,'" he said.

The next morning, the couple saw an opportunity when the door wasn't being watched.

They ran.

Less than 24 hours later, Tin Nyo Win's wife was captured at a market by the shed manager. He watched helplessly as she was dragged away by her hair, terrified for her — and the baby they recently learned she was carrying.

Read the full article from the Associated Press.

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