To farm shrimp and get a “crop” big enough to market requires the use of a large quantity of antibiotics. Without their use, more often than not, die-offs occur in the overcrowded holding ponds used to raise the crustaceans. Also, the ponds in Nicaragua were built close to the coastline by simply digging an unsightly and environmentally unsound trench from the sea o the ponds and letting them fill up. The degradation in the areas where the ponds were located was astounding. It was hard to imagine a country would allow such reckless disregard for is ocean and shore resources but Nicaragua is the second poorest nation in the Western hemisphere and grinding poverty often dictates poor policy.
Since that investigative piece and supporting Conley’s position on the issue, an uncountable number of articles have been published by other sources condemning the majority of farmed seafood, citing the unhealthy use of antibiotics like a mantra in support of wild caught shrimp and fish.
Ten years after the investigative trip to Nicaragua, Conley, now the Publisher of The Sun Bay Paper, took another trip, this time to Thailand and what he found there provided another, even more compelling reason to stop buying and eating farmed Shrimp.
Thailand is one of the world’s biggest sources for farmed shrimp. It is a $7 billion dollar industry and most of it in for export to the U.S., Europe and Asia. If a consumer in the U.S. has bought shrimp from Wal-Mart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Dollar General, Red Lobster or Olive Garden, chances are very good that they came from Thailand. This has been traced by examining U.S. customs records and recently journalists from the Associated Press also tracked and filmed “trucks loaded with freshly peeled shrimp from a Samut Sakhon, Thailand peeling shed.” The AP followed the export trail right to the tables of America.
International interest in how the shrimp were processed and peeled intensified after an official raid of the Samut Sakhon facility. The raid followed on the heels of multiple complaints that child labor, bordering on enslavement, was being used to peel shrimp. The complaints, some from escaped laborers, was bolstered by an International Labor Organization report that an estimated 10,000 migrant children aged 13 to 15 were “working in the city and up to 60% of them were forced labor form Burma used in the seafood processing industry.”
What Thai officials found at the Samut Sakhon shrimp shed clearly provided verification that “slave labor” continues to be used in some of the poorest regions of the world. In this case to put cheap shrimp onto the plates of diners at all-you-can-eat buffets throughout the developed world.
Over a hundred Burmese migrants were found that day, many working 16 hour shifts with their hands in icy water, taking the heads and shells off shrimp. Many had been sold into indentured servitude by their parents. One “worker” was so small she had to stand on a stool to reach the peeling table. Many had been there for years, often unpaid or paid so little they had no way to escape. And then again, escape was even harder because someone was always watching.
Corruption and complicity by local police make arrests and prosecutions rare and sometimes, when a raid is carried out, it is the migrants themselves who are taken to jail for lack of “proper paperwork,” while the Thai seafood bosses escape punishment. To show the premeditated nature of the operations, officials have found that the identity papers of the “workers” are usually taken from them until they can repay the “costs” they are told they owe for transportation and rubber gloves and boots “necessary” to work in the sheds. It’s the company store all over again.
“More than 2,000 trapped fishermen have been freed this year as a result of an ongoing Associated Press investigative series into slavery in the Thai seafood industry. The reports also have led to a dozen arrests, millions of dollars' worth of seizures and proposals for new federal laws”, according to the AP,
Despite these successes, several hundred peeling sheds line the residential streets in Samut Sakhon, a port city about an hour outside Bangkok, Hundreds of mostly Burmese labor in these sheds every day and the conditions are so inhumane that numbers are used instead of names to tell one worker from the next.
One such worker, No. 31, later identified as Tin Nyo Win, was, interviewed by the AP along with his wife. Win told reporters that if they “didn’t work they were beaten.” He said there was no easy escape since their movements were tightly controlled by brutal Thai bosses.
"I was shocked after working there a while, and I realized there was no way out," said Win, 22. "I told my wife, 'We're in real trouble. If something ends up going wrong, we're going to die,'" he added.
Some of America’s most popular seafood and pet food brands have been found to be using shrimp from the Thai peeling sheds. Chicken of the Sea and Fancy Feast, sold in grocery stores like Safeway, Piggly Wiggly and Albertsons are two well-known examples. Reporters from the AP also “went to supermarkets in all 50 states and found shrimp products from supply chains tainted with forced labor.”
While European and Asian import and export records are confidential, Thai companies receiving shrimp tracked by the AP also said they ship to Europe and Asia as well as the U.S.
When contacted many of the businesses involved at the end of the supply chain say they condemn these practices and are “launching investigations” the shrimp keep getting sold and unknowing consumers keep buying.
If either the U.S. companies or their customers could see inside a farmed shrimp processing plant in Thailand, they might abandon farmed shrimp altogether. Reporters who have gained access to the plants and warehouses say that “toilets are overflowing with feces, and the putrid smell of raw sewage waft from open gutter just outside work areas. Young children run barefoot through suffocating dorm rooms and entire family’s labor side-by-side at rows of stainless steel counters piled high with tubs of shrimp.”
Shrimp is America’s most-loved seafood and we down 1.3 billion pounds every year, which equals about 4 pounds per person. Wild shrimping is a tough business and we have a large shrimp fishing industry on San Carlos Island near Fort Myers Beach in unincorporated Lee County. Gulf Shrimp, often called Pink Gold by locals, are some of the best Shrimp to be found anywhere but with the high price of fuel, labor, boats and processing, there is no way our local industry can compete with the price of farmed shrimp processed by near slave labor.
Once a seafood delicacy reserved for special occasions, when Asian farmers started growing it in ponds three decades ago, shrimp started appearing as an everyday food for many as its popularity grew. Thailand quickly dominated the market and this small S.E. Asian nations now exports approximately half of its supply to the U.S.
But Thailand is also one of the worst human trafficking hubs on earth. According to multiple media sources, “It has been blacklisted for the past two years by the U.S. State Department, which cited complicity by Thai officials. The European Union issued a warning earlier this year that tripled seafood import tariffs, and is expected to decide next month whether to impose an outright ban.”
The Thai Frozen Foods Association say there are only “about 50 registered shrimp sheds in Thailand.” But hundreds more operate outside any regulations and when questioned about their existence, no one in any official capacity will acknowledge them. Even a cursory look around Samut Sakhon shows the true extent of the industry. Everywhere is the smell of putrid dead fish and dozens of trucks with seafood logos can be found at any single moment barreling down the streets where the processing sheds are located. Then there are the uncountable number of small pickups trucks carrying migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar all bound to gut, de-vein and peel seafood for the businesses that “don’t exist.”
While some workers are legitimate, the numbers who are not are greater. A recent U.N. agency study found 58% of the Burmese working the sheds were victims of forced labor.
Take the case of No. 31 – Tin Win. After being told of good-paying jobs and decent work conditions they were smuggled across the border of Myanmar into Thailand without work permits or visas. Like so many before them they were told they had to work off an $830 debt incurred to bring them to Thailand and outfit them for work. It was more than their entire net worth.
Initially they were terrified to escape because their Thai bosses told them without proper work permits they’d just be arrested and the only way to survive was to work hard and in the end they would be given the proper papers and paid. Of course, this never occurred and at some point Win saw his situation as it really was – he and his wife were slaves to the seafood factory. Conditions were deplorable.
"We had to get up at 3 in the morning and then start working continuously," said Eae Hpaw, 16, whose arms were a patchwork of scars from infections and allergies caused by the shrimp. "We stopped working around 7 in the evening. We would take a shower and sleep. Then we would start again."
Five months after they started working in the shed and after a beating by a night supervisor, Win and his wife had had it with the threats and bad treatment.
"They would say, 'There's a gun in the boss's car and we're going to come and shoot you, and no one will know,'" he said.
So one morning, when there was a lapse in security at the plant, the couple bolted out of an unguarded door and escaped.
But less than a day later, Win’s wife was recaptured by the shed manager. Desperate, with no idea where his wife and baby were being taken, Win sought help from a local labor rights organization and they helped him get police action. After raiding several sheds, she was found in a shed near the one she had worked for so long with her husband.
Unfortunately the story of Win does not have a happy ending. They were taken to jail and charged with entering the country without work permits and held on a $3,890 bond, an impossible sum for them to pay. Meanwhile back at the sheds, another 16 hour shift of shrimp peeling began again.
U.S. customs have linked shrimp exported from the sheds to more than 40 U.S. brands including some with such innocent sounding names, like Sea Best, Waterfront Bistro and Aqua Star. The AP also found shrimp products associated with these brands in more than a 150 stores across America from Hawaii to New York City to a small West Virginia hamlet of 179 residents. In addition the major grocery chains mentioned earlier have tens of thousands of outlets where American consumers buy their shrimp.
"I want to eliminate this," said Dirk Leuenberger, CEO of Aqua Star. "I think it's disgusting that it's even remotely part of my business."
Red Lobster said they were confident that their particular shrimp were not associated with the abusive peeling sheds, but their assertions were based on assurances from the very Thai suppliers suspected of using forced labor in the past.
"I am deeply disappointed that despite our best efforts we have discovered this potential instance of illegal labor practice in our supply chain," Thai Union CEO Thiraphong Chansiri wrote. His statement acknowledged "that illicitly sourced product may have fraudulently entered its supply chain" and confirmed a supplier "was doing business with an unregistered pre-processor in violation of our code of conduct."
After the results of media investigations were brought to the attention of retailers, Thai Union said it would bring all shrimp processing in house by the end of the year and also said it would provide jobs to “workers displaced by the closing of unregistered factories.”
Up to now, the State Department has refused to apply sanctions to Thailand that it has used with other countries with bad human trafficking records because it is a “strategically critical S.E. Asian ally.”
Also federal authorities say they can’t enforce U.S. laws that ban importing goods produced by forced labor, citing an exception in the law for “items consumers can’t get from another source and that Thai shrimp slips right through that loophole.”
This does beg the question of where our local wild caught shrimp fit into the scheme of things.
Almost 90% of shrimp consumed in the U.S is imported and the vast majority of them are farmed, so Thailand is not the only source of forced labor seafood that finds its way onto American’s plates.
The State Department issues an annual anti-trafficking report and it has established that “55 countries on six continents” are using forced or slave labor for seafood production.
A slave island in Benjina, Indonesia was discovered with hundreds of migrants fishermen locked in cages and forced to work and just last month, Nestle, one of the largest food corporations in the world, found that its Thai suppliers were using “enslaved workers,” and vowed to change its purchasing methods to eliminate seafood produced in this manner from its supply chain.
Thailand’s government recently said it will renew focus on the countries fisheries to eliminate human trafficking and slave labor. It claims to have passed new laws to stop illegal activities aboard fishing vessels and inside the seafood processing factories like the peeling sheds.
"There have been some flaws in the laws, and we have been closing those gaps," said M.L. Puntarik Smiti, the Thai Labor Ministry's permanent secretary. "The government has made human trafficking a national agenda. The policy is clear, and every department is working in the same direction. ... In the past, most punishments focused on the laborers, but now more focus is put on punishing the employers."
With corruption such an integral part of Thai law enforcement, critics have said the changes are “cosmetic” and will, at the end of the day, produce little real change.
"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."
And still the scampi, stir fries and all-you-can-eat buffets proliferate across the affluent West.
One worker, describing the horrendous conditions inside the peeling sheds said he saw a woman eight months pregnant, miscarry on the shed floor and was forced to keep peeling shrimp for four days while she hemorrhaged.
"Sometimes when we were working, the tears would run down our cheeks because it was so tiring we couldn't bear it," said the worker who ran away. His name is being withheld due to concerns about his safety.
"We were crying, but we kept peeling shrimp," he said. "We couldn't rest. ... I think people are guilty if they eat the shrimp that we peeled like slaves."
Material for this article was obtained on location in Nicaragua and Thailand and amply supplemented by resourcing the Associated Press and other media outlets. Conley will be in S.E. Asia again in May, 2016 and plans a trip to some islands in Indonesia to see firsthand the extent of forced labor usage in the fin seafood industry as well as a follow-up visit to Thailand to see if any progress is being made in the export shrimp business. The results of that on location investigation will appear in both the print and online versions of The Sun Bay Paper.