Skip The Shrimp Cocktail From Now On, It Was Probably Made By Slaves

The following might be upsetting if, like me — and millions of other Americans — you do your part to eat the 1.3 million pounds of seafood that makes its way to supermarkets in the United States each year.

Almost 90 percent of that shellfish is imported. Half of Thailand’s seafood export ends up in the U.S. And it’s being fulfilled by Burmese slaves.

Starting at 2 a.m., they stand for 16 hours a day shelling shrimp, locked inside hundreds of unmarked sheds an hour outside of Bangkok. They are not paid (or they are paid very little, less than $4 a day). They are not allowed to leave. They are only referred to by assigned numbers, not their own names. They are migrants of all ages, including children too small to reach the peeling tables without standing on a chair.

There is no school for these children. There is no medical care for any of the workers. They are not allowed to talk. They live 50 to 100 people in a stifling dorm on site.

A woman eight months pregnant miscarried on the shed floor and was forced to keep peeling for four days while hemorrhaging. An unconscious toddler was refused medical care after falling about 12 feet onto a concrete floor. Another pregnant woman escaped only to be tracked down, yanked into a car by her hair and handcuffed to a fellow worker at the factory.

AP Journalists discovered the violations in the town of Samut Sakhon with the help of escaped slaves who led them to the shrimp sheds. They followed trucks leaving the Gig Peeling Factory through Thai export companies, and on to the U.S. By tracking customs forms, it was discovered that shrimp from Gig reached all 50 states.

Wal-Mart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Dollar General, Petco, Red Lobster, and Olive Garden are all included in the list of 150 stores and companies that use the imported Thai shrimp in their products. Processed and prepared foods like Chicken of the Sea and Fancy Feast are also guilty of including seafood harvested by slave labor.

Only 50 out of hundreds of shrimp sheds in Thailand are even registered. Nearly 60 percent of their workers are undocumented slaves. Ten thousand migrant children aged 13 to 15 are working in Samut Sakhon. They are people who were lured out of their homes in neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar with the promise of high-paying jobs, only to be sold to these seafood companies and required to “work off” their self worth by peeling the shrimp.

Legitimate Thai seafood companies can’t even tell you how much of the shellfish they buy from processing companies comes from undocumented workers. That means, according to United Nations and U.S. standards, every piece of seafood coming out of Thailand is associated with slavery.

There are very few arrests or prosecutions against the companies that are keeping these people hostage. The American businesses that were found to have imported shrimp from Gig condemned the practice and have launched their own investigations. The European Union will decide next month whether to outright ban all seafood imports from Thailand.

With the help of the Associated Press, 2,000 fisherman have been freed. After the AP’s findings were sent out to Thai officials last week, the Thai Union announced it will bring all shrimp-processing in-house by the end of the year. The Gig Peeling Factory was closed, but the workers there were just moved to another factory owned by the same company. Whistleblowers were arrested, and the children discovered during raids on the sheds were separated from their families and sent to shelters.

Meanwhile, the AP keeps finding sheds full of slave workers in Samut Sakhon. Being that Thailand is an important ally in Southeast Asia, the United States hasn’t imposed sanctions against this human trafficking in the seafood industry. According to Susan Coppedge at the U.S. State Department, the best Americans can do right now is to stop buying shrimp from Thailand.

[American consumers] can speak through their wallets and tell companies: ‘We don’t want to buy things made with slavery.’

(via Associated Press)