Shrimp products sold at some of the world's largest retailers are linked to a prawn farming company in Thailand that uses slave labor in a key part of its supply chain, according to a report published by the Guardian today.
After six months of investigating, the outlet found that the world’s largest shrimp farmer, Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF), purchases fishmeal from companies that "own, operate, or buy" from vessels employing slave labor. Workers were reportedly kept in horrific conditions, tortured and executed. The fishmeal is fed to the prawns on CPF farms and the products are sold to supermarkets including Walmart, Tesco, Costco, and Carrefour.
'People use the term modern-day slavery, there's nothing modern about this, it's pure slavery.'
In the UK, Morrisons, the Co-operative, Aldi UK, and Iceland are also among the list of stores selling CPF shrimp products.
This is not the first news of a slave labor problem in the Thai fishing industry, which employs up to 300,000 people and exports approximately 56,000 tons of prawns annually.
In the past few years, warnings and studies have surfaced from organizations like the International Labour Organization and the UN inter-agency project on human trafficking. Most recently, a March report from the human rights charity Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) found evidence of trafficking, exploitation, and human rights abuses within the $7 billion industry.
"What truly surprised me was the extent of the abuse and the extremes of violence," Steve Trent, EJF's executive director, told VICE News. "People use the term modern-day slavery, there's nothing modern about this, it's pure slavery."
According to the report, Thai fishing boat workers described 20-hour work days, low salaries, forced detention, and physical abuse both at port and on the vessels.
“We tried to flee, but the agent caught us and we were beaten. My friend lost consciousness. Because I covered myself, I did not get hit in the face. But my friend was hit badly,” Than Shwe, an 18-year-old from Myanmar who worked as a fisherman in Thailand, told EJF.
Trent said slave labor is on the rise in the Thai fishing industry, largely driven by market demands. "There's been a shortage of supply of shrimp around the world," Trent explained. "You also have retailers in Western Europe and America who are feeling the push from consumers for a lower price point."
According to Trent, a high employment rate in Thailand also contributes to the problem, as the country relies on migrant workers from surrounding nations to fill jobs. More than 90 percent of the workers in the fishing industry are migrants, according to the Guardian.
CPF has reportedly been aware of the aware of the problem for some time. While the company could not be reached for comment, a detailed page on their website focuses on sustainability and labor practices. In September 2013, the company introduced a pilot project for a Responsible Fishery Zone, which included a measure to encourage all supply chain participants to “use legal labor.”
"We're not here to defend what is going on," said Bob Miller, CPF's UK managing director, told the Guardian. "We know there's issues with regard to the [raw] material that comes in [to port], but to what extent that is, we just don't have visibility."
The news of the direct link between CPF and major international retail stores that include Walmart, Carrefour, Costco, and Tesco brings up issues of how globalized companies address international labor standards.
'We are actively engaged in this issue. Walmart is playing an important role in bringing together stakeholders, NGOs and other private sector companies to help eradicate human trafficking.'
"For a long time they've been saying 'we don't understand the industry, it's a complicated supply chain, we can't track it,'" Trent said.
He says when the issue has surfaced in the past, industry actors come out with response plans and hold meetings, but as soon as the attention dies down, "It's kind of back to business as usual."
“We regard slavery as completely unacceptable. We are working with CPF to ensure the supply chain is slavery-free, and are also working in partnership with the ILO and the Ethical Trading Initiative to achieve broader change across the Thai fishing industry,” a Tesco spokesperson told VICE News.
Walmart spokesperson Kevin Gardner told VICE News: "We are actively engaged in this issue. Walmart is playing an important role in bringing together stakeholders, NGOs and other private sector companies to help eradicate human trafficking from Thailand’s seafood export business."
According to Trent, response in recent years from key global and local players to the slave labor and human trafficking problems in the fishing industry have been very ad hoc and unorganized.
Trent recommends unannounced supply chain audits, improved government controls, and holding the corporations legally accountable. He says everyone involved needs to take on a sense of "shared culpability," even if the problem is happening on the other side of the world.
"If this kind of abuse were happing in Boston and New York, or London and Manchester, the industry would be shut down overnight," Trent said. "Just because it's coming from a country a long way a way the players are happy to ignore it."
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB
Image via Flickr