U.S. restaurants, grocers linked to Thai shrimp slave trade

Human Trafficking
by Anna K. Poole
Posted 12/16/15, 08:50 am

Thailand, a longtime human trafficking hub, is once again submerged in accusations from human rights groups and global grocery suppliers over a newly discovered link to slave labor in the nation’s shrimp industry. This week, an Associated Press investigation tracking Thai shrimp exports revealed significant human rights breaches, including brutal forced labor of pregnant women and small children. 

According to a network of AP reporters who tracked Thai customs slips and visited supermarkets across the United States, grocery retailers in all 50 states stock shrimp products from supply chains associated with slavery. According to the data, 54 grocery retailers are implicated, including Aldi, H.E.B, Publix, Target, and Whole Foods, with restaurants such as Red Lobster, Longhorn, and Olive Garden also serving Thai-sourced, slave labor-tainted shrimp. 

Exporters and parent companies recoiled at the findings, expressing abhorrence for human rights abuses. 

“I want to eliminate this,” said Dirk Leuenberger, CEO of Aqua Star. “I think it’s disgusting that [slavery is] even remotely part of my business.”

Samut Sakhon, the investigation’s focal point, is a port town one hour outside Bangkok and the epicenter of Thailand’s shrimp industry. Past probes into Samut Sakhon’s demographics reflect a city swelling with slaves. According to a UN study, nearly 60 percent of Burmese laborers in the town’s seafood processing industry are victims of forced labor. A recent International Labor Organization report estimates 10,000 of the town’s migrant workers are children aged 13 to 15.  

According to The Global Slavery Index, Thailand is home to about 3 million migrant workers, with 500,000 of them classified as enslaved laborers. Last year, Thailand’s government estimated 90 percent of people working in the nation’s fishing industry are fleeing impoverished neighboring countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. Lured by the promise of work and struggling to communicate in a second language, migrants often are more at risk for being tricked and trafficked.

Thai officials say human trafficking is on the government’s national agenda, and lawmakers will focus on fixing flaws in migrant labor policies.But critics say Thailand’s efforts to combat forced labor are largely cosmetic. Raids on labor sites often put slaves in police custody, but when they’re released they get re-hired at another forced labor fish shack. 

“There are laws and regulations, but they are being selectively enforced to benefit one side,” said Patima Tungpuchayakul, manager of the Thai-based nonprofit Labor Rights Promotion Network Foundation. “When you find there is a child working 16 hours a day and getting paid [$2.75] … the government has to put a stop to this.”

Earlier this year, the European Union issued a warning to Thailand, tripling seafood import tariffs, and is expected to decide next month whether to impose an outright ban.

Thailand, one of the United States’ strategic Southeast Asian allies, has managed to evade sanctions the U.S. State Department applies to other countries with similarly weak human trafficking records. Federal authorities say they cannot enforce U.S. laws banning slave-produced imports, citing an exception for items consumers cannot get from another source. Thai shrimp slips right through that loophole. 

Almost half of Thailand’s shrimp exports land in the United States, where the demand is high for gutted, deveined, and conveniently clean crustaceans. Americans consume about 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp each year, or about four pounds per person.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Anna K. Poole

Anna is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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