The Cheap, Imported Shrimp Americans Love Is the Product of Slave Labor

The Cheap, Imported Shrimp Americans Love Is the Product of Slave Labor

A major investigation finds human rights abuses in a new corner of Southeast Asia’s shellfish industry.

Migrant workers at a shrimp factory in Samut Sakhon on the outskirts of Bangkok. (Photo: Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters)

Dec 14, 2015

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Popping the tails off of countless shrimp while plowing through an order of Chinese takeout or a plate of scampi hardly feels like labor. That’s part of the magic of the vast international supply chain that catches, processes, packages, and ships the 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp that Americans eat every year, more than any other type of seafood. Ninety percent of that shrimp is imported, much of it from Thailand.

But the makings of an easy dinner on one side of the world are part of a vast, abusive industry on the other. Investigations by The Associated Press and The New York Times have shown that the system that allows us to enjoy shrimp at a low price is rife with labor abuses, including slavery. Now, a new investigation published Monday by the AP looks at the human rights abuses in a new corner of that system—the peeling sheds in Thailand’s $7 billion seafood export industry, where your shrimp goes from having a head, body, legs, and guts to being a simple bite.

The workers in these sheds—sometimes nothing more than a dank, dirty garage—are often immigrants and refugees from countries such as Myanmar, sold to their bosses by traffickers and kept locked up in dormitories. To leave, they must pay off the cost of their purchase to the shed’s operator. For Burmese immigrants Tin Nyo Win, 22, and his wife, Mi San, the $830 they had to pay might as well have been $1 million—they each earned just $4 a day, the AP reported, and often far less.

“I told my wife, ‘We’re in real trouble. If something ends up going wrong, we’re going to die,’ ” Tin Nyo Win told AP reporters.

The revelations are no less shocking than what had previously been revealed about egregious labor violations previous investigations found along the Southeast Asian seafood supply chain. And once again, the shrimp peeled by slave labor have been shown to end up in places Americans eat and shop on a regular basis. The AP traced the shellfish to Walmart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Dollar General, Safeway, Albertson’s, Petco, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and Chicken of the Sea. “AP reporters went to supermarkets in all 50 states and found shrimp products from supply chains tainted with forced labor,” the story reads.

In response to the AP’s investigation, Thai Union, one of the leading seafood companies in Thailand, said that it would stop outsourcing processing labor by the end of the year. But past promises to clean up the industry have proved hollow. Even the U.S. State Department, which lists Thailand on Tier 3—alongside North Korea and Syria—in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, has not levied sanctions on the Thai government and industries that help to perpetuate slave labor. Unlike those other countries, Thailand enjoys good relations with the U.S. government.

Though some U.S. retailers, including Whole Foods, assured the AP that the shrimp sold at their stores is not the product of slave labor, the Thai suppliers to those stores admit they don’t always know where their product comes from.

As with other foods—meat, tomatoes, eggs, wild salmon—if you’re willing to pay a little more (and perhaps peel your own), it’s not hard to find sustainable and sometimes local shrimp right here in the good ol’ U S of A.