Thai Shrimp Industry: Human Trafficking into Supply Chains

Image taken from The Guardian

As the world’s largest prawn (shrimp) exporter, Thailand has recently come under scrutiny for enabling a crime that dates back to antiquity: yes, slavery’s modern parallel, human trafficking.

A recent report by The Guardian revealed the atrocity that trafficked migrant workers fuel the $7.3 billion Thai fishing industry. Annually, Thailand produces approximately 42 million tons of seafood and exports 90% of it to the United States, the United Kingdom, and across Europe. Slave labor pervades this industry’s supply chain.

Many of the world’s largest prawn farmers, particularly the Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, buy a variety of trash fish and other bycatch to feed their farmed prawns from suppliers that exploit the labor of trafficked migrant workers. Most often enslaved on fishing boats, migrant workers labor long hours (20+) without pay, adequate food, or sufficient rest.

Control. Physical and psychological abuse. Accumulation of debt. Traffickers employ these common tactics to exercise complete control over trafficked persons, who are often too afraid, too “indebted,” or too broken to leave. A Thai vessel may keep an individual enslaved for years to meet the international demand for inexpensive shrimp. When a worker escapes or dies, a captain simply purchases another one. Gone are the days when a slave cost a fortune; human beings are cheap nowadays. This directly translates into traffickers viewing migrant workers as disposable commodities.

When does labor exploitation become modern day slavery? According to the Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, force, fraud, and coercion define trafficking into labor and sex. More generally, little to no pay, lack of freedom, and encroachments on other civil liberties have become common indicators of human trafficking.

Many individuals, particularly from Burma and Cambodia, voluntarily pay brokers to facilitate their migration to Thailand in search of work. Then, these same brokers, often working in tandem with politicians and law enforcement officials, utilize force, fraud, and coercion to sell the workers to captains of large fishing vessels. Large companies like CP Foods buy their trash fish either directly from these vessels or indirectly from other factories that have slavery in their supply chain. Companies such as Walmart, Tesco, and Costco receive their prawn exports from these large multinational suppliers.

This leads to the uncomfortable truth: many Americans purchase their shrimp from companies that have slave labor in their supply chain.

CP Foods and other companies responded to these allegations posed by The Guardian’s report. CP Foods apparently has policies against forced labor and pays its fishmeal factories to ensure these suppliers buy their bycatch from vessels that are licensed, legal, and “slave-free.” Leading supermarkets Walmart, Costco, and Tesco all condemned slavery and defended their policies that are committed to ensuring its absence from their supply chain.

However, policies sometimes fail to achieve their desired result. According to The Guardian’s report, many “legitimate” vessels paid by CP Foods’s factories failed to log their catches or register their workers. Others are simply illegal “ghost boats,” unlicensed suppliers of trash fish that not only mimic legitimate vessels but also habitually exploit slave labor. One boat captain told The Guardian that his only goal is to maximize his profit, a common motive driving human trafficking into supply chains.

Still, it is simplistic to believe that profit maximization itself explains why trafficking into supply chains continues to persist. An entire “culture” surrounding human trafficking reduces human beings to cheap commodities to be bought and sold in “the free market.” This must be uprooted.

The sad truth remains that even those migrant workers who manage to escape remain invisible. If the government and its law enforcement officials are complicit in human trafficking, how does a victim of modern day slavery receive justice, compensation for his or her labor, and/or services to address the physical and psychological abuse, drug addictions, and other health issues that he or she may experience?

As with most victims of trafficking, escape and rescue are often insufficient means to engender full recovery and a road to empowerment.

What is clear is that the Thai government will have to respond to these allegations. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has adopted a new Protocol on Forced Labor, which is a legally binding statement that strengthens the international community’s fight against forced labor. It aims to further protect victims and increase their access to remedying services. Governments are also required to protect workers, including migrant workers, from illegal recruitment efforts, such as those used by the fishing vessels in the Thai case. However, Thailand voted against this new Protocol; four of the eight votes against this new ILO convention came from Thailand.

What does this say about the Thai government’s true stance on ending forced labor, and where do we go from here?

According to another source, a sustainable and ethical global economy untainted by slavery may be possible. It asserts that first a nation must establish research teams trained in documenting the production base of various commodities at every level of the supply chain. Whereas effective responses would vary in each industry, constructing a constant system of independent, third-party certification would be a crucial first step to ensure transparency within the industry’s supply chain.

Second, it is important to address the issues that render communities vulnerable to human trafficking and exploitation. Industries wishing to source labor from particular communities should also invest in their development, education, health and security in order to ensure that individuals from these communities are not trafficked or exploited.

Combating human trafficking into supply chains highlights a greater commitment to an ethical, sustainable global economy. Globalization will continue as the world becomes more interconnected. Rather than forging connections through a shared chain of goods produced by slave labor, it is time for all nations to come together to address how human trafficking (and slavery) can be ended once and for all.

– Written by Harleen Kaur, BTCC Intern

Harleen Kaur is an intern with the Break the Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies for the summer of 2014. Originally from San Jose, CA, she is currently a student studying Government and Economics at Smith College in Northampton, MA.

The Economy, Labor, and Vulnerable Populations

On Tuesday October 8th  in New York City, I witnessed a speaker from the International Labour Organization give a speech about the organization and issues related to labor. The International Labour Organization is the first specialized agency of the UN, established in 1946.[1] The ILO attends High Level Dialogues, meetings, and hearings associated with labor. The mission of ILO is to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen dialogue on work-related issues.[2]

The labor sector has three primary actors: governments, employers, and employees. The speaker emphasized that without negotiations, discussions, rules, or resolutions things fall apart. There needs to be simple discussions to talk about issues in the industry, placing the issues in perspective.

The economy is changing: globalization has made the need for sustainable development and technical advancement more apparent. The speaker discussed how these aspects can be linked to migration, where individuals are traveling and looking at other places for work.

Vulnerable populations are seen as the targets that are more likely to be exploited. The representative emphasized that illiteracy and innumeracy causes individuals to be to be exploited, forced into labor, as well as become victims of debt bondage and human trafficking.

Indigenous populations are also seen as vulnerable populations that can be taken advantage of. The population does not have a “voice” and the speaker discussed how ILO as well as the United Nations center on providing the “voice.”

The speakers also discussed the problem of child labor. Children mostly work at family farms due to poverty. Child labor is defined as such through the means that it is labor that prohibits the child from growing emotionally, physically, and psychologically, etc.

The speaker concluded that while education is important, there is a need to look at the issues in a bigger scope in order to make progress.

-Melissa Zacarias, Educating and Worker Organizing Intern

Today is International Migrants Day – What role do migrant workers play in our economy?

International Migrants Day“Imagine, if you will, that, on the same day, all migrants and immigrants decide to return to their countries of origin. The Filipina nanny would pack her bags and leave the family in Singapore whose children she has been raising. The sub-urban couple in San Diego would be without their Mexican gardener who worked for less than five dollars an hour. Italian farmers would find the fruit rotting on their trees because their cheap migrant workers left the orchard. New York’s manufacturing sector would collapse because a large portion of the workforce is absent. Worse, Wall Street would be closed because cleaners, security guards, office staff, and taxi drivers are unavailable. Many sectors of the economy in industrialized countries would come to an immediate standstill. The rest of the economy would follow within days, if not hours. Although not your typical doomsday scenario, this hypothetical example illustrates that our economy depends on the labor of often “invisible” international migrants.” (Bauder 2006: 3)

18 December is the International Migrants’ Day proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in remembrance of the adoption of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families on 18 December 1990. Today, large-scale immigration is even more a reality than 20 years ago and the opening passage of Harald Bauder’s book Labor Movement above nicely illustrates the degree to which the Western economies have become dependent on the employment of migrant labor. Migrant workers surround us, do the jobs we are no longer willing to do ourselves and work hours and under conditions we would not tolerate. But what explains this demand in our purportedly advanced “knowledge economies” for low-skilled and low-paid labor done by immigrants? What vital function are they playing for our economy?

Here are 10 reasons why employers like hiring immigrant workers:

1. Migrants ideally satisfy the need to fill the bottom positions in the social hierarchy

Some jobs in our economies just do not offer much in terms of social status or prestige, think for example of cleaners, door-keepers or agricultural laborers. They are dead-end and offer no real opportunities for promotion. Yet, as studies show, people do not only care about earning money, but also about the immaterial benefits a job offers, in particular the position in the social hierarchy compared to others. It is hence difficult for employers to find motivated natives who are willing to do these jobs and they resort to migrants. Migrants, at least in the early stages of their stay, consider themselves less a part of the host society and the standards by which they judge their jobs are usually lower. Their primary goal is to earn as much money as possible in a short time and to improve their social status back home (e.g. building a house, sending the children to school).

2. Migrants are a flexible and disposable workforce

In an unstable economic environment characterized by continuous ups and downs, migrants can offer employers some extra flexibility. While native workers do often benefit from some form of employment protection, migrants mostly hold unstable jobs and can be easily laid-off when business conditions worsen. They form a disposable workforce, what Marx called a “reserve army of labor”, that employers can draw on to fill temporary needs when business is thriving. On the other hand, migrants will typically be the first ones to be fired when the economy worsens.

3. Migrants offer employers an opportunity to lower salaries and cut wage costs

Globalization – the outsourcing and offshoring of production abroad – and technological change have created new opportunities for high-skilled workers and multinational enterprises. However, small and medium sized companies, in particular those in the labor-intensive service-industries, do not have the option of relocating operations to low-cost countries: offices and hotel-rooms have to be cleaned and dinners served where the customers are. They hence react to the new pressures by cost-cutting measures, subcontracting and lowering wages. Migrants are more willing to accept lower-wages since they compare what they can earn here to the conditions back in their home country, which are often far worse. Working conditions in their home country may be so bad – or unemployment that high – that many migrants prefer working for very low wages here than working for almost nothing back in their home countries.

 4. Rising inequality in income and wealth

Over the last decades, inequalities in income and wealth have been rising in almost all Western societies. The rising inequality has not only created poverty and deprivation in the lower strata of society, but also a wealthy upper-class that has a growing need for personal and domestic services. Hence low-income workers, often immigrants, serve in the restaurants where the wealthy dine, clean the offices where the wealthy work and care for their children or their elderly parents. The growing wealth has also led to an increase in the size of people’s homes over the last two decades, creating a need for cleaners, gardeners, etc. just to keep everything nice and pretty.

5. The growth of the informal economy

The informal or so-called “shadow” economy plays and increasingly important role especially in bigger cities.  Companies that can no longer compete in the formal economy may prefer to go “underground”. Often these firms do not produce illegal products but affordable goods for the low-income communities. In particular for undocumented migrants, who do lack the permission to work in the formal economy, employment in the shadow economy is often the only possibility to find a job and earn a living at all. But also documented migrants may be hired in the informal economy since the lack of a formal contract gives employers additional flexibility and opportunities to further lower costs.

6. Migrants have a superior ‘work-ethic’

Studies that involve interviews with employers of migrants often highlight migrants’ perceived superior ‘attitude’ or ‘work ethic’ when compared to local workers. Migrant workers are described as more disciplined and hard working than natives. They are often more willing to work night shifts or over-hours and complain less about their tasks and working conditions. This should not surprise us. On the one hand, migrants are often just more in need of earning money in order to send it back to their families. The smaller size of family and social networks also makes them more likely to live on site or work long hours. On the other hand, migrants often don’t know their rights at the workplace, e.g. regulations concerning breaks and over-hours. Their informal or precarious employment status also makes them less likely to complain because of fear of loosing their job.

7. High-levels of seasonal fluctuation

Migrants often work in industries like agriculture, construction or the hotel sector that have a need for a high number of workers during peak season. This allows them to earn money over a short time and spend the rest of the year at home with their families. Yet, these jobs are also often those referred to as the “3-D” jobs: dirty, dangerous and degrading.

 8. Racial and gendered stereotypes

In some cases, the choice of migrant workers is based on racial and gendered stereotypes regarding the appropriateness of certain kinds of work for certain kinds of people. This affects in particular women who clean and care in private households or work in the sex industry. Their employers might prefer women from developing countries because they consider them as inferior and appropriate for the kind unskilled work they have to perform.

9. Disciplining the local workforce

At least historically, migrants have also been used by employers as strike-busters in order to break the power of labor unions. When workers laid down their tools and went on strike against harsh working conditions or low wages, employers recruited immigrant workers to keep up the work. Immigrants are much less likely to be organized in unions and to join the ranks of the labor movement. This allowed employers to withstand the strike and to defeat unions’ claims. This tactic often drove a wedge between different parts of the workforce and undermined the power of the labor movement to the detriment of all workers.

10. Path-dependence

A final reason why employers may want to hire immigrants is a matter of path-dependency. Once a substantial part of his workforce is made up of immigrants from one country speaking the same language, it may be just more practical for an employer to hire workers with the same background that can easily interact and communicate with their co-workers. Moreover, there is ample evidence that immigrants and their communities, once one or a few immigrant workers are hired in a given workplace, will tend to bring in other members as job openings arise. Finally, once specific types of jobs or sectors are associated with particular immigrant communities, this may further discourage native workers to take on these jobs in the long run.

Looking at the demand for migrant labor in our economy from this perspective, we see that migrants perform vital functions in our societies that allow us to sustain our own lifestyle, in particular concerning the consumption of cheap products and services. In reality, immigrants do not ‘steal our jobs’, as often claimed by anti-immigrant populism, but do the jobs natives are no longer willing to do themselves. On the other hand, the current model works by restricting the rights of migrant workers, producing a flexible and vulnerable workforce. This opens the gates for exploitative labor practices and abuse ranging from sub-standard working conditions, to the withholding of wages to slavery-like practices of forced labor and human trafficking.

Making migration more beneficial and equitable for both the host society and the migrants hence requires the protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of migrants as set out in the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. What we need is a rights-based approach to international migration that not only furthers employers’ interests in flexibility and cost cutting, but also the interests of migrant workers in decent employment. No migrant-receiving State in Western Europe or North America has ratified the Convention yet! This is a shame. After all, we are as dependent on them as they are on us.

- Joscha


Anderson, B., (2000) Doing the Dirty Work? The global politics of domestic labour, London, Zed Books

Bauder, H., 2006. Labor movement, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, R., 1987. The new helots: Migrants in the international division of labour, Gower.

Piore, M.J., 1979. Birds of passage : migrant labor and industrial societies, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ruhs, M., Anderson, B. & Phil, D., 2010. Who needs migrant workers?: labour shortages, immigration, and public policy, Oxford University Press.

Samers, M., 2010. Migration, London; New York: Routledge.

Sassen, S., 1996. New employment regimes in cities: the impact on immigrant workers. Journal of ethnic and migration studies, 22(4), pp.579–594.

Taran, P. & Chammartin, G.M., 2003. Getting at the roots: Stopping exploitation of migrant workers by organized crime.

The Philippines Ratifies Domestic Worker Convention. Will the U.S?

A little over a year ago, the International Labor Organization (ILO) voted to adopt Convention 189 for Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C189). Earlier this month, the Philippines became the second country to ratify the convention, which will allow for the Convention to come into legal force a year from now in 2013.  

In more cases than not, domestic workers are left out of national labor laws, and are not guaranteed the same rights and protections as other categories of worker. As a result, domestic workers are often exploited, facing long hours, irregular payment of wages, restriction on movements, and physical abuse. C189 aims to address this issue by requiring states who ratify the convention to:

  • Apply the same standards to domestic workers as to workers generally in regards to hours of work, overtime pay, and rest time or leave days
  • Respect the rights of domestic workers to collective bargaining
  • Take steps to eliminate child labor in the industry
  • Protect domestic workers from abuse, harassment and violence
  • Ensure that domestic workers have fair terms of employment and decent working conditions

While C189 was passed overwhelmingly by the ILO’s voting members, steps to ratify the convention have not been are still few and far between. However, a number of countries, including Belgium, Brazil, Norway and Peru, have expressed their intentions for ratification. And even without ratification, C189 creates new international standards for the treatment of domestic workers that countries will feel pressure to meet.  

Even though the United States encouraged strong protections when the convention was being drafted, it is unlikely that the country will ratify C189 anytime soon. C189 requires countries to pass implementing legislation to take efforts to meet the convention’s standards, and such legislation would override our current national labor laws. Our legal standards on the treatment of domestic workers are currently too far below the international standards set up within the convention. It would not be unheard of for the United States to sign an international treaty requiring implementing legislation and declare it non self-executing,but currently, even such a limited step does not seem to be in consideration by Congress. If the United States did declare the treaty non self-executing, it would greatly limit the convention’s power and efficacy.

It’s an up-hill battle in getting the U.S. to extend labor rights to domestic workers on a national level. Toward the end of 2011 the Department of Labor published proposed changes to the regulations of the companionship exemption, which currently excludes most domestic workers from the Fair Labor Standards Act. The changes would more clearly define who falls into the exemption and what activities outside of fellowship and protection are allowed by the exemption. They would also make it so that the exemption does not apply to workers employed by third party employers, such as home healthcare agencies. The proposed changes have met with fierce opposition, and a bill was introduced to the Senate to preserve the scope of the exemption. The bill is unlikely to pass, but may have, along with negative comments submitted during the commenting period, delayed action from the Department of Labor.

Though the United States is unlikely to bring itself up to the standards set out within C189 anytime soon, there’s still room for optimism. States such as New York and California are making efforts to protect domestic workers, and Bahrain recently became the first Gulf country to amend its labor laws to include domestic workers. The convention’s ratification by Uruguay and Philippines should be celebrated — C189 is an important step. It represents a shift in attitudes toward domestic workers and a recognition of their value, their dignity, and their importance to local and global economies. And until the standards the convention sets out are adopted worldwide, workers and advocacy organizations are going to continue fighting for the fair treatment of domestic workers.


Uruguay Ratifies ILO Domestic Worker Convention, Putting Spotlight on California


On June 16, 2011, after 2 years of negotiations and a 3 year campaign led by domestic workers, trade unions, and human rights organizations, the International Labor Organization voted to create Convention 189 for Decent Work for Domestic Workers.

Last Wednesday, Uruguay’s House of Representatives voted to ratify Convention 189. There are 14 million domestic workers in Latin America, with 120,000 in Uruguay. Across Latin America, the US, and the world, domestic workers are celebrating this victory, and feeling even more determined to continue with their campaigns.

C189 recognizes domestic work as any other work and ensures that domestic workers are treated as any other worker under labor legislation.

Countries that ratify C189 have to ensure, among other things, that their national laws:

  • Recognize the right of domestic workers to collectively defend their interests through trade unions
  • Protect the right of domestic workers to a minimum wage in countries where such a wage exists
  • Guarantee them a monthly payment and access to social security including maternity, and
  • Give them one day off per week, and regulate working hours and leave days

There are active campaigns for ratification in 73 countries around the world. Organizers and advocates in these countries are undertaking actions to demand the ratification of C189 and changes in national legislation

So what are we fighting for? Recognition, Rights, and Respect.

  • Recognition that domestic workers are neither servants nor slaves, but rather workers, with rights like any other worker.
  • Respect that this is dignified and valuable work—in fact, domestic workers care for what we most value—our homes and our family members, and they do the work in the home that makes it possible for other people to do the work they do—we call it “the work that makes all other work possible.”
  • Rights that ensure recognition, respect, and dignity are reflected in the law

Many in the US believe that the basic minimum standards laid out in ILO Conventions hardly apply to the US labor market because we already have strong labor rights compared to other countries, but domestic workers in the US are fundamentally excluded from some of the most basic labor protections offered to other workers. In fact, the US cannot ratify Convention 189 until it raises labor standards here in order to ensure equity with the international Convention.

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is taking a national and state-based approach, and is currently organizing for the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights (AB889) that would provide basic labor protections, like the right to overtime, to domestic workers. The bill is closely modeled and inspired by the New York Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. With these bills as models, the US has the opportunity to join the rest of the world in recognizing that “domestic work is real work” and that these workers deserve rights and respect.

 The victory of the ILO Convention was a monumental step forward in our fight for recognition that domestic work is work. Guillermina Castellanos, a lead organizer in California, said in a speech at the ILO:

At the age of five I started working as a domestic worker and when I was 15 I immigrated to the United States and I went straight into a nannying job. I was abused a domestic worker in Mexico and also in the US. My experience is not unique, it’s an experience shared by millions of domestic workers. That’s why, for me, this ILO Convention is so important—because it will help us have labor standards for domestic workers, who are primarily women and children.

Yo trabaje desde la edad de los 5 como trabajadora del hogar y inmigre a los estados unidos cuando tenia 15 anos, y entre directamente en un trabajo de cuidado de ninos. Fui abusada como trabajadora del hogar en Mexico y tambien en los EEUU. Mi experiencia no es unica, es una experiencia compartida con millones de trabajadoras del hogar. Por eso para mi es tan importante este Convenio porque esto nos ayudaria tener normas que apoyan a las trabajadoras del hogar, quienes son mas que nada mujeres y ninas.

The time is now! As we come up on the first year anniversary of the ILO Convention, California can either stay in the past, can remain in a time when domestic workers were seen as servants, as slaves, and their work not considered valuable or real; OR, California can be at a leading edge of the wave of change to recognizing that domestic workers are workers, and their work deserves to be respected and protected.