Global supermarkets in the U.S., Europe, and Asia have inadvertently been selling shrimp peeled by Burmese slaves in Thailand, the Associated Press reported Monday. The shrimp has been sold at retailers including Walmart, Kroger, Stop & Shop, and Whole Foods Market, as well as in restaurants including Red Lobster and Olive Garden.
AP reporters discovered slaves working for factories like the Gig Peeling Factory, where people were required to rise at 2 a.m. and peel shrimp for 16 hours. Slaves were occasionally remunerated for their grueling work, but the majority of the men, women, and children were unpaid laborers, many of whom entered from nearby Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. Those who entered illegally were sold into the slave trade and forced to work off an insurmountable and imposed “debt” to their bosses, which included cleaning fees for the filthy shacks where they worked and slept. Those who had entered the country legally had their papers confiscated.
These shrimp are not easy to avoid as supply chains are often so complicated that buyers do not know where their shrimp is coming from. Shrimp peeled by slaves can be mixed with peeled shrimp from registered sheds within five days and long before shipping out of Thailand. Thai Union ships to dozens of U.S. retailers and has been found to have these slave shrimp-peeling shacks in its supply chain.
"I am deeply disappointed that despite our best efforts we have discovered this potential instance of illegal labor practice in our supply chain," Thai Union CEO Thiraphong Chansiri wrote in a statement, acknowledging that "illicitly sourced product may have fraudulently entered its supply chain.”
While the Gig Peeling Factory is now closed due to AP efforts, it was not unique. Hundreds of unregistered shrimp sheds operate in Samut Sakhon, the main Thai shrimp processing region and the focus of the AP investigation. Most contain between 50 and 100 people, who are often locked inside; this also includes a total of about 10,000 migrant children. Entire families are enslaved, and when slaves are occasionally allowed to leave the shacks, one family member will be held as insurance against escape.
"I was shocked after working there a while, and I realized there was no way out," Tin Nyo Win, 22, told an AP reporter.
This is unfortunately not a new problem. The Guardian reported slave labor linked to Thai shrimp farming in 2014. In that case, the slaves were kept on boats fishing for “trash fish” to be used in fish farms. Slaves were often kept on the boats for years at a time, working 20-hour shifts, and were regularly offered methamphetamines to stay awake. Many were murdered in execution-style killings as punishment for transgressions and as a warning to other slaves.
Businesses and the Thai government have repeatedly promised to clean up the seafood export industry. AP’s reporting on the problem has led to the release of more than 2,000 trapped fishermen and a dozen arrests, though none of the people behind the Gig Peeling Factory were apprehended for human trafficking.
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U.S. retailers were appalled upon learning that they had been peddling the product after the AP story ran.
"I want to eliminate this," said Dirk Leuenberger, CEO of Aqua Star. "I think it's disgusting that it's even remotely part of my business."
A Walmart spokesperson also replied to an inquiry by Fortune. “We are aware of the Associated Press story, and we were horrified by the conditions and treatment of workers the reporters uncovered.”
Americans consume 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp a year, about 4 pounds per person, far beyond the consumption of other seafood. Shrimp is one of the least expensive seafood items, in large part due to the dominant,$7 billion Thai market, which evolved 30 years ago. Nearly half of the Thai supply is exported to the U.S.
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Shrimp image via Shutterstock