Don’t Eat That Shrimp: Understanding your role in Thailand’s fishing industry horror story

Did you know that shrimp, your favourite crustacean and undeniably delicious fruit of the sea, likely went through the hands of multiple slaves?

The definition of human trafficking, according to the Government of Canada’s Department of Justice, “involves the recruitment, transportation, harbouring and/ or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person, typically through sexual exploitation or forced labour. It is often described as a modern form of slavery.”

Modern form of slavery. The use of the word ‘modern’ implies that slavery is a thing of the past.
Well folks, it certainly is not.

This post will inform you of the real life horror stories occurring in Thailand’s fishing industry and how our taste buds are furthering human slavery and murder.

If I’ve scared you away or don’t have time to read more, here is the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJV)’s video that drew international attention to the the issue of slavery in the Thai fishing industry, back in 2013.

Did you know?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, Thailand is the 3rd largest exporter of fish and fishery products, after China and Norway.
On a national level, it’s clear that Thailand’s seafood industry is the key ingredient to the country’s continuous economic growth.

In 2014, Felicity Lawrence, a writer for the Guardian, explained that “slavery in Thailand’s fishing industry is doubly shocking because it is what the country’s GDP is built on. Seafood is one of the main exports that have driven south-east Asian growth.”

In an interview addressing slavery in Thailand’s fishing industry, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, admitted that Thailand’s “industry would have a hard time operating in its current form without it.” As worldwide demand for fish isn’t slowing down anytime soon, the demand for free labour will only increase.

Shocked? Were you aware this was taking place in your favourite tropical getaway?

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Peaceful vacation destination?

How is this happening?

According to a study published last year in Marine Policy by researchers at  Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand…

1. Desperate for fish

The high demand for fish combined with unregulated and unsustainable fishing practices has lead to the degradation of fish stocks, in Thailand and all over the world.
(To put it simply, there are no fish but they’re gonna fish anyway.)
An overall lack of  fish available and a determination to stay competitive has lead to fish operators cutting costs.

no fish –> no money –> cheap labour –> slaves

2. Desperate for labourers

As Thailand’s economy continues to develop, fishers are able to find work the city and can be closer to their families. The Thai fishing fleet, which is the second largest supplier of fish to the U.S. by the way, lacks tens of thousands of workers per year. 

3. Desperate migrant workers

The Thai fishing industry relies almost completely on migrant labourers from surrounding countries – especially those from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Thailand is a major destination for foreign workers, both documented and undocumented. These workers will use any means necessary to get into the country, no matter how dangerous. This desperation makes them vulnerable to forced labour practices.

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Scarred hands from years of forced labour onboard Thai fishing vessels

3. Desperate Job Recruiters

In the fishing industry, employment is usually managed by recruiters, or brokers, who provide labour to the fishing boats. The brokers make the workers pay a recruitment fee of which many migrant workers take on debt they agree to pay over time. Desperate for a source of income, migrants may borrow from a number of sources, including the broker.

The accumulated debt is then used by their captors as “runaway insurance.”

Since the fishing industry is a less than desirable place to work, often brokers are desperate to recruit workers, and directly involve themselves in human trafficking.

Even if fishers volunteered themselves through an employment agreement, they may still find out later that they were deceived and put into a forced labour situation.

One example is Myint Thein, a Myanmar man that paid someone to smuggle him into Thailand to work at a factory. After passing through thick jungle, long bumpy roads, and over huge ocean swell to arrive at a Thai port, he discovered he’d been sold into slavery. When he tried to escape, they beat him until all his teeth were smashed out. Click here for the Guardian‘s full story.
Click here for the recent escapement of a man who lived for 22 years as a slave. 

4. Abuse and murder

Boat captains and crew will often abuse and use coercion to maximise labour productivity. Physical, psychological and sexual violence are common on fishing vessels. The UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP) reported that 59% of freed workers surveyed in 2009 had witnessed the murder of a fellow slave.

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Tens of thousands of men are disappearing from home, and never returning

5. Ghost Ships and Island Camps

Once on board a fishing vessel, captive men never actually come to shore and can stay at sea for years at a time. If they do go to shore, they are often taken to neighbouring countries like Indonesia, where they are left starving behind bars until the next boat shows up for them.

How do they do this?

Fishing vessels, referred to as ghost ships, stay at sea and unload fish onto smaller cargo boats, that drop off supplies, do boat maintenance and then return to shore. Slaves are traded from one boat to another and can work on multiple boats over decades.

It’s also important to note, that as Thai fishers are more desperate for fish, they are fishing in illegal waters. Thai fishing vessels have even been caught illegally fishing as far as Ethiopia and Indonesia.

Two good (and criminal) reasons to stay at sea, for months on end, and never get caught.

6. Enslaved women and children

Aware of the sex trafficking industry in Thailand, I was not surprised to read that the two forms of slavery were not mutually exclusive. Men are not the only ones affected by this industry.

In CNN’s report of Thai fishing and slavery, they spoke with a 21 year old Myanmar man that had escaped captivity on board a Thai fishing boat. Originally he left Myanmar to work on a pineapple farm with 12 other people, but he was sold into slavery by his broker. He told CNN that the girls in his group were sent to work in seafood processing factories, while the prettier ones were sent to brothels.

If not sent to brothels, migrant women are forced to work for the fishing industry on land. Men, women, and children are forced to spend entire days peeling shrimp that comes off the boats.

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Women and childen forced to peel shrimp for over 16 hours a day

Who is eating the shrimp?

The UN and U.S. Standards has announced that because at least some of shrimp exported from Thailand was processed by slaves, all of it is considered associated with slavery.

So who is eating the shrimp?

We are.

“Walmart, Costco, Carrefour and Tesco buy their prawn stocks from the world’s largest prawn farmer, Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, which is based in Thailand.” – Blue and Green Tomorrow

Click here the Washington Post‘s impressive list of (mostly) American retailers and chains.

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I know, it’s not your fault little guy. 

Here’s what you can do*

*Remember, change isn’t supposed to be easy.

1. Boycott shrimp

You read it, we can’t eat shrimp without assuming it’s been caught or processed by a slave. These slaves aren’t just bodies, they are dads, moms, sisters, sons, daughters, brothers, aunties.. and they deserve to be validated as such.

Most investigations have been done in the US and Europe, but other countries, like Canada, are not exempt. If we stop buying shrimp, corporations will stop buying too.

“I guarantee you that if Wal-Mart and Kroger and Red Lobster stopped buying from Thailand until this got fixed, I think pretty soon Thailand would have no choice but to really deal with it,” Buddy Galetti, president of Southwind Foods, commented on the topic of a boycott.

Wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?

Read this for more: 
AP Investigation: Slaves May Have Caught the Fish You Bought

2. Buy local and well-managed species

If you’ll continue to eat shrimp, then buy local and responsibly caught only. 

When I first learned of the slave industry in Thailand, I started reading the origin of shrimp in my local grocery stores – specifically the cheaper frozen stuff. In grocery stores all across the city of Vancouver, I couldn’t find bags of cocktail shrimp or prawns that weren’t from Thailand!
The only places I could avoid Thai shrimp, was if I bought fresh local species.

If you’re willing to pay a little extra, check out your local deli for the slave-free species.

  • Make sure you are buying a species that is sustainably managed in whatever country you are reading this from (just a quick Google search away)
  • If you choose to stop eating Thai shrimp, remember that most restaurants serve Thai shrimp, unless otherwise stated on the menu. Don’t be fooled!

For my BC friends and family, the spot prawn from BC is a local sustainable “Best Choice,” according to SeaChoice.

Fun fact: I am allergic to crustaceans, like shrimp, so I can 100% promise you I am not supporting the slave trade in Thailand!

3. Tell your friends

This is a classic “out of sight, out of mind” example.
People just aren’t aware that this is happening, and it’s no small thing.
The 3rd largest exporter of shrimp is fueled by slavery! And our culture loves shrimp! Ahh!!!

Share this post, click on the links, educate yourself, and then spread the word!

What is being done?

The real answer is not enough, but I can’t leave you feeling hopeless.

Public Awareness

Investigations and reports from organizations like the Associated Press and the Guardian are grabbing media attention, and people are starting to listen and act. You included!

Policy Attempts

The gradual increase in media attention over the last decade has enraged enough people to start conversations in governments.

For a short period, the US Government rated Thailand at the lowest possible category for human trafficking  – a tier 3 on the Trafficking in Persons Report. Last year, they were removed from the list – from tier 3, to tier 2 (a watchlist) sparking outrage from all over the world.

What TIP report’s Tier 3 means
– judges effectiveness of eliminating human trafficking
– Under US law, could stop trade agreements (no shrimp to enter the US, no foreign assistance from the US)
– Could be denied access to financial institutions like the World Bank

The upgrade in status was the result of Thailand taking serious steps toward ending slavery, but many sources show evidence of the opposite. The Guardian states that
numerous reports “have found that slavery, trafficking, murder and corruption at all levels of the Thai government still pervade Thailand’s fishing industry.”

I was unable to find any official bans on Thai fish products, but multiple threats from the US and the EU. Canada has stayed quiet on the matter, but is generally closely tied to the products that enter the US.

Click here to see how some California law firms took Costco to court for knowingly selling slave tainted shrimp

Freeing Efforts

There have been successful attempts to free slaves from processing factories, Indonesian islands, and fishing vessels!

– In 2015, Associate Press’ investigation led to the freeing of over 2000 slaves over a period of 6 months

-DigitalGlobe, a satellite imaging company, was able to help Human Rights officials see ghost ships in the middle of the ocean, from space. This lead to the freeing of hundreds of captives. Check out their website and watch the video here.

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After 22 years of slavery, Myant Naing, seeing his family in Myanmar again

Slavery exists today, and you have the power as a consumer to do something about it.
Knowing what you now know, it’s your responsibility to avoid seafood products from Thailand and spread the word about slavery.

Featured Image source: Click here.

If you have anything to correct or add, get in touch via the contact page!


1 Comment

  1. OK I almost cried reading each of those extra stories in the links. What a compelling and heartbreaking read, Sarah, bah.
    Also, those scarred haaands. I wish I could hold them.

    Liked by 1 person

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