Shrimp sold by global supermarkets is peeled by slave labourers in Thailand
The buying and selling of humans. Sixteen-hour shifts. Grueling and forced manual labor. Child exploitation. Sleep deprivation. These are some of the dark truths dug up in an investigative report by The Associated Press conducted in Bangkok, Thailand, during a probe of the shrimp deshelling business. Reporters found that slavery is practically par for the course in the industry, and slaves are often working in factories that are hidden in plain sight. Slaves are driven hard, not compensated for their work and dehumanized by owners who refer to them using numbers instead of their names. Many children, some very small, are among those forced to work under the unforgiving conditions. The vast majority of the enslaved are migrant workers.
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.
Pervasive human trafficking has helped turn Thailand into one of the world’s biggest shrimp providers. Despite repeated promises by businesses and government to clean up the country’s £4.6bn seafood export industry, an Associated Press (AP) investigation has found that shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves is reaching the US, Europe and Asia.
The problem is fuelled by corruption and complicity among police and authorities, and arrests and prosecutions are rare. Raids can end up sending migrants without proper paperwork to jail, while owners go unpunished.
So far this year, more than 2,000 trapped fishermen have been rescued as a result of an ongoing AP investigative series into slavery in the Thai seafood industry. The reports have led to a dozen arrests, millions of dollars’ worth of seizures and proposals for new federal laws.
Hundreds of shrimp peeling sheds are hidden in plain sight on residential streets or behind walls in Samut Sakhon, a port town an hour outside Bangkok. The AP found one factory that was enslaving dozens of workers, and escaped migrants led rights groups to the Gig shed and a third facility. All three sheds held 50 to 100 people, with many locked inside.
As Tin Nyo Win soon found out for himself, there is no easy escape. One woman had been working at Gig for eight years. Another man ended up peeling shrimps there after breaking free from another factory that was equally brutal.
“I was shocked after working there a while, and I realised there was no way out,” said Tin Nyo Win, 22, whose teeth are stained red from chewing betel nut. “I told my wife, ‘We’re in real trouble. If something ends up going wrong, we’re going to die.’”
Last month, AP journalists followed and filmed trucks loaded with freshly peeled shrimp from the Gig shed to major Thai exporting companies and then, using US customs records and Thai industry reports, tracked it globally. They traced similar connections from another factory raided six months earlier, and interviewed more than two dozen workers from both sites.
US customs records show that the shrimp entered the supply chains of major US food stores and retailers such as Walmart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Dollar General and Petco, along with those of restaurants such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden.
It also entered the supply chains of some of America’s best-known seafood brands and pet foods, including Chicken of the Sea and Fancy Feast, which are sold in grocery stores from Safeway and Schnucks to Piggly Wiggly and Albertsons. AP reporters went to supermarkets in all 50 states and found shrimp products from supply chains tainted with forced labour. There is no suggestion that any of these companies were aware of the use of slave labourers.
European and Asian import and export records are confidential, but the Thai companies receiving shrimp tracked by the AP all say they ship to Europe and Asia as well.
The businesses that responded condemned the practices that lead to these conditions. Many said they were launching investigations after being told that their supply chains were linked to people held against their will in sheds like the Gig factory, which sat behind a gate off a busy street.
Inside the large warehouse, toilets overflowed with faeces, and the putrid smell of raw sewage wafted from an open gutter just outside the work area. Young children ran barefoot through suffocating dorm rooms. Entire families laboured side-by-side at rows of stainless steel counters piled high with tubs of shrimp.
Tin Nyo Win and his wife, Mi San, were cursed for not peeling fast enough and called “cows” and “buffaloes”. They were allowed to go outside for food only if one of them stayed behind as insurance against running away. But escaping was all they could think about.
Shrimp is the most-loved seafood in the US, with Americans eating 590m kg of it every year, or about 1.8kg per person. Once a luxury reserved for special occasions, it became cheaper when Asian farmers started growing it in ponds three decades ago. Thailand quickly dominated the market and now sends nearly half of its supply to the US.
The south-east Asian country is one of the worst human trafficking hubs on earth. It has been blacklisted for the past two years by the US State Department, which cited complicity by Thai officials. The EU issued a warning this year that tripled seafood import tariffs, and is expected to decide next month whether to impose an outright ban.
Consumers enjoy the convenience of dumping shrimp straight from freezer to skillet, the result of labour-intensive peeling and cleaning. Unable to keep up with demand, exporters get their supply from peeling sheds that are often just crude garages adjacent to the boss’s house. Supply chains are so complicated that buyers often don’t know exactly where the shrimp has come from.
The Thai Frozen Foods Association lists about 50 registered shrimp sheds in the country. However, hundreds more operate in Samut Sakhon, the country’s main shrimp processing region. Here the humid air hangs thick with the smell of dead fish. Refrigerated trucks with seafood logos barrel down streets straddled by huge processing plants. Just as ubiquitous are the small pickups loaded with migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar being taken to gut, fillet and peel the seafood that fuels this town’s economy.
Abuse is common in Samut Sakhon. An International Labour Organisation (pdf) report estimated 10,000 migrant children aged 13-15 work in the city. Another UN agency study found that nearly 60% of Burmese labourers toiling in its seafood processing industry were victims of forced labour.
Tin Nyo Win and his wife were taken to the Gig Peeling Factory in July when they made the long drive from Myanmar across the border, crammed so tightly into a truck with other workers that they could barely breathe. Like many migrants, they were lured from home by a broker with promises of well-paid jobs, and came without visas or work permits.
After being sold to the Gig shed, the couple learned they would have to work off what was considered their combined worth, £548m. It was an insurmountable debt.
Because they were illegal workers, the owners constantly threatened to call police to keep them in line. Even documented migrants were vulnerable because the boss held on to identification papers so they could not leave.