Thinking Aloud: “Want Some Human Trafficking With that Shrimp?”

June 20, 2014 by Darius 

Today, the US State Department officially downgraded Thailand into the worst category of countries working to combat human trafficking.  Thailand’s sex trafficking industry is legendary.  But an important secondary driver of Thailand’s human trafficking is an industry of a more mundane nature: fishing.

Thailand is the world’s third largest exporter of seafood – worth $7.3 billion dollars in 2011 – but very little of Thailand’s fishing industry is worked by Thais.  Instead, 90% of workers are migrants – generally completely undocumented, illegal, penniless, and vulnerable.  These migrants, many of which are Burmese, are lured to Thailand with the prospect of good jobs.  Instead, they are sold to captains of fishing boats and press-ganged into service.  Once at sea, workers are beaten, starved, tortured, and killed.  Often, they spend years without being on land – they are sold from ship to ship at sea.

Most of what the fishing boats actually catch are so-called “trash fish,” so named because humans don’t directly eat them.  Instead, the fish are ground up and sold as fishmeal to be used as food for shrimp farming in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.  The shrimp (also known as prawns in many places in the world) are exported to the US and elsewhere.

Thailand is doing precious little to combat human trafficking.  Indeed, some Thai government and law enforcement officials are complicit in trafficking.  The corporations that end up with the shrimp often can’t or won’t trace their supply chains back to the slave-crewed boats, despite the fact that both Time magazine and The Guardian have done lengthy exposés of the prevalence of human trafficking in Thailand’s fishing industry over the last few months.  International retailers such as Walmart, Costco, Carrefour, Tesco, Aldi, and many others buy from the world’s largest shrimp farming company, which in turn is known to buy meal produced from fishing boats using slave labor.

Today’s State Department report may eventually result in US restrictions on fish imports from Thailand.  But in the meantime you can vote against human trafficking with your wallets: don’t buy any seafood from Thailand (check your canned tuna, et al.) or any farmed shrimp from anywhere in Southeast Asia because statistically, it is likely to have been fed slave-caught fishmeal.

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