The Global Shrimp Industry Has a Slavery Problem

It's possible you buy shrimp from stores that buy from farms that buy feed from producers that employ slave labor.

A globalized food system ensures that consumers the world over can purchase virtually any product, reasonably fresh, in any season, anywhere. The costs from such luxuries are usually seen in the form of unequal offshore pay and the environmental impact. But what if those food options are tainted by something a lot more sinister?

New information unearthed in The Guardian suggests that in the long chain of production that shrimp take from Southeast Asia to the American dinner table, slave labor factors in. In summary:

The investigation found that the world's largest prawn [shrimp] farmer, the Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, buys fishmeal, which it feeds to its farmed prawns, from some suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned with slaves.

Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.

The details get grisly:

Another trafficking victim said he had seen as many as 20 fellow slaves killed in front of him, one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.

Furthermore, The Guardian reports, the shrimp which have fed on the feed that was produced in part by slave labor, are purchased by American big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco. CP Foods admitted to The Guardian that they know there are problems with their suppliers, but "but to what extent that is, we just don't have visibility." And Costco has said it will demand its suppliers police their suppliers.

According to a 2013 U.S. State Department report on human trafficking, although slavery is illegal there, "Thailand is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking." And "a significant portion of labor trafficking victims within Thailand are exploited in commercial fishing, fishing-related industries, low-end garment production, factories, and domestic work, and some are forced to beg on the streets."

Concerns over the Thai shrimp industry are not new. Wal-Mart stopped buying shrimp from Narong, another Thai manufacturer, in 2012, presumably over charges that Narong hired underage workers. Thailand produces nearly a third of the shrimp consumed in the United States, for a haul of $1 billion a year.

Ensuring an ethical global supply chain is no small challenge for international companies that also have an interest in keeping down costs. Apple, probably most notoriously, has suffered publicly under reports of unsafe working conditions in its supplier factories in China. Although it's hard to say that any one shrimp was the direct result of slave labor (it's implied that CP foods has more than one shrimp-feed supplier), that dark human trafficking economy does touch at the corners of our globalized commercial one. Is that worth the price of cheap shrimp?