Shrimp and Slavery

Shrimp, once an expensive delicacy in most Western nations, has in recent years become accessible to individuals operating on a limited budget.  At Red Lobster, you can eat prawns to your heart’s content by opting for the “Endless Shrimp” special — all the shrimp you can eat, plus salad and cheddar biscuits for $16.99.  At Costco, two pounds of farm-raised shrimp can be purchased for under $14.   At Walmart, a 24-oz. bag of farm-raised prawns will run you $9.98.  That’s approximately 60 “large” shrimp for under $10.  No wonder shrimp has become “the most-loved seafood in the US, with Americans eating 590m kg of it every year, or about 1.8kg per person.”




How is this financially possible?  Are shrimp farmers and trawlers just that efficient?  Or is something else afoot — something dark and hidden in the international supply chain?

The truth is this:  A very large portion of the shrimp imported into the U.S. comes from slave labor.  The Thai shrimp industry, a global heavyweight, is largely undergirded by modern-day slaves.  We don’t use that word lightly.  We are not simply talking about underpaid and overworked men and women; we are talking about full-on slaves.  They are beaten, tortured, and shackled.  That–not some magical application of comparative advantage or economies of scale–is the reason for cheap shrimp.


How does this happen?  And if most of the imported shrimp in U.S. supermarkets is farm-raised, how can sea slaves play any kind of a role?

Suffering breeds suffering.  Fleeing atrocities in Burma/Myanmar and Cambodia, countless refugees head south, hoping to reach relative safety in Thailand or Malaysia.  Of course, without papers and permission, they are ripe for exploitation by human traffickers.  Once they fall into the hands of traffickers, these refugees–men, women, and children–are faced with an impossible choice.  Either they find a way to pay the traffickers’ exorbitant demands–leveraged through forced ransom calls, beatings, rape, imprisonment, deprivation of food and water, and even killings–or the traffickers sell them to Thai fishing boats.  Either way, the traffickers get paid.

Once aboard the fishing boats, these most vulnerable of people become full-blown slaves.  The traffickers warn their victims that if they are sold to a boat, they will never see shore again.  In many cases, this seems to be true.  The going price?  About $900 per person.

If the sea slaves refuse to work, they are whipped (sometimes with the tails of venomous sting rays), beaten, or simply thrown overboard.  “Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods [which in turn sells to Walmart and Costco] 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.”  This short documentary is must-see material.

But, again, you might wonder:  How do these terrible practices feed into farm-raised shrimp?  The answer is in the question: “feed.”

The supply chain works in this way: Slave ships plying international waters off Thailand scoop up huge quantities of “trash fish”, infant or inedible fish. The Guardian traced this fish on landing to factories where it is ground down into fishmeal for onward sale to CP Foods. The company uses this fishmeal to feed its farmed prawns, which it then ships to international customers.

And it’s not just slaves working on boats.  Shrimp-processing factories in Thailand are rife with slave labor as well.  Once again, migrants fleeing atrocities are the prime catch for the powers that be.  A harrowing account from The Guardian:

Every morning at 2am, 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 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 US.

After being sold to the Gig Peeling Factory, the couple 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. At all times, someone was watching.

Names were never used, only numbers given by their boss. Tin Nyo Win was No 31.

Amidst all the suffering, there is nevertheless reason for hope.   Duped customers and former slaves are beginning to use U.S. federal courts to seek at least some semblance of justice.

In August 2015, Monica Sud filed a putative class action against Costco and CP Foods.  Ms. Sud hopes to represent a class of all California residents who purchased CP Foods shrimp from Costco, believing–reasonably–that the shrimp was not the product of slave labor.  Essentially, Ms. Sud claims that she and thousands of other Costco costumers have been defrauded; they would not have bought the shrimp had they known of its horrific origins.  The complaint is available for review here.

Although Costco has filed a motion to dismiss on standing grounds–alleging that Ms. Sud is not actually a member of Costco–the basic claim seems likely to persist, even if the attorneys are forced to find a new lead plaintiff.  If a class action is certified, that would place major pressure on Costco and CP Foods to clean up their act.  We will be monitoring this litigation and keeping readers informed.

In another line of attack, laborers from India recently obtained relief against U.S. company Signal International after a jury found that Signal had held the men in forced labor.  Signal  was ultimately forced to pay nearly $35 million and offer a public apology.  The litigation also helped drive Signal into bankruptcy.

Although this case did not involve fishing slaves, it offers a helpful example of how former slaves might use strategic litigation to win some compensation (however inadequate) and force companies to think twice about supporting barbaric practices.


The bottom line is this:  The global seafood industry is rotten to the core.  Factory trawlers and long-liners are eliminating entire species, pirate vessels (IUU ships) are thieving unknown quantities on top of absurdly high legal quotas, and governments are frequently complicit.  Then there is slavery and human trafficking.  These horrors are fueling an industry that is already incredibly shameful.  We must fight back.

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