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.
–Harleen Kaur, BTCC intern