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Thread: Thailand's seafood industry: state-sanctioned slavery?

  1. #1

    Thailand's seafood industry: state-sanctioned slavery?

    Thailand's seafood industry: a case of state-sanctioned slavery?
    Felicity Lawrence
    Tuesday 10 June 2014

    Slavery is illegal, yet it is driving Thailand's growth – so why are retailers, producers and governments alike turning a blind eye?

    Burmese migrant workers leave the port of Mahachai, Thailand, after unloading their catch.
    Photograph: Chris Kelly

    Slavery is illegal in every country in the world. Yet slavery – the sort of state-sanctioned chattel slavery we thought we'd abolished about 200 years ago – is just what the Guardian has uncovered in the Thai fishing industry. We have established that prawns – shrimp, as they are known in the US – reach our supermarket shelves off the back of it.

    This sort of slavery, in which people are bought and sold like commodities, subjected to extreme violence, held against their will and forced to work for no pay, is supposed to have been eradicated. Appalling revelations about the trafficking of people for domestic servitude and sexual exploitation remain disturbingly familiar, but we thought slavery at the heart of mainstream global economic activity was over.

    The 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.

    Tropical prawns used to be a rare luxury that few could afford. Now, however, most of us can, because they are farmed on an industrial scale. It has been possible to turn them into an item of mass consumption because, at the end of the chain, there are people working for nothing or next to nothing.

    Slavery has not re-emerged by accident. It is as structural to modern global supply chains as it was to the sugar trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, slave labour in the colonies provided the biggest external contribution to Europe's economic growth. Throughout the Industrial Revolution, it was the triangular trade between England, Africa and the Caribbean – sending English goods and guns to Africa, where they could buy slaves to work the sugar plantations of the West Indies and transform a rarity into a cheap commodity to feed the new factory workers of English cities – that facilitated the accumulation of wealth back home. Slavery was the engine of emerging capitalism.

    Without the slaves press-ganged on to Thai fishing boats to work unpaid, the economics of the modern prawn industry would not add up. And it's not just the prawn industry that has been built on slaves; slavery in various forms is part of the soya chain in Brazil that feeds the industrial chicken factories of the west, the all-year salad crops from Spain, and has even been uncovered in the supermarket egg chain in the UK.

    How did this happen?

    All supermarkets and transnational producers say they abhor slavery. But agribusiness has helped create the conditions for it.

    Western-led institutions rewrote the postwar rules to open up world trade, removing regulations and barriers to big business. They opened borders to the free movement of capital and goods but, illogically, believed they could control the free movement of people that accompanied the process.

    We've created a large new pool of people who have to migrate to survive. These are the people excluded from the growth created by globalisation, which has sucked wealth upwards and offshore. Some have been dispossessed by land grabs, others by plantation agriculture or expansionist aquaculture.

    Some are victims of war, some from countries so indebted or environmentally ravaged they cannot survive or support their families at home. They are easy prey to traffickers who trick them into slavery, just as some Africans were lured on to slave boats centuries ago.

    Supermarkets have also used their power to drive down prices in a race to the bottom; they expect to sell goods for less than it costs to produce them.

    Violence or the threat of violence is needed to enslave people. People lose their freedom when the law cannot protect them or chooses not to do so. The globalisation of trade has not been accompanied by a parallel extension of the rule of law transnationally. Neither have the institutions needed to enforce the law across jurisdictions been expanded. Slavery in Thailand's fishing sector thrives courtesy of corruption among police and local politicians. Where slavery has been uncovered in the western European end of supply chains, it has taken root thanks to an absence of enforcement. The state has been rolled back, and the institutions that mediated between powerless individuals and the force of the market have been weakened. Slavery may be illegal but it is, in effect, state-sanctioned.

    Worse still, where slaves once represented a precious capital investment worth taking some care of, they are now so cheap that they are disposable. Anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales has calculated that relative to measurable assets through the ages – for example, the price of land and cattle – a slave today typically costs 95% less than at the height of the original slave trade.

    Today, a slave on a Thai boat who tries to rebel, or is no longer fit for slave work, risks being executed and thrown overboard – even, in one incident, torn limb from limb. In a 2009 UN survey (pdf), 59% of migrants trafficked on to Thai boats reported having seen a fellow worker murdered.

    Conditions in the Thai prawn industry's supply chains are no secret. UN agencies and NGOs have warned of them.

    But distance has made it possible to turn a blind eye. Globalisation has hidden the brutal realities of slavery through chains of outsourcing, subcontracting, and "commercially confidential" lists of suppliers. While the fact of this new slavery has been known, how we connect with it has not – until now. It took us more than six months to follow the cargoes of trash fish harvested by slaves to the processing mills that turned it into feed for the intensive prawn farms that, we then found, acted as suppliers to the names we all recognise.

    "If you buy prawns or shrimp from Thailand, you will be buying the produce of slave labour," says Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International.

    The excuses for colluding in this slavery are familiar. Retailers say long supply chains make it hard to know what is going on, let alone be accountable for it. The industry pleads a dearth of labour – and yet there is no shortage of people who want to work, only of local people with the legal right to work who are prepared to tolerate such egregious conditions.

    We hear too that enslaved people in the country illegally often put themselves forward for trafficking voluntarily, as though their foreignness and desperation meant they forfeited any human rights. And we hear that the industry is on a "journey" trying to tackle the problem because it would be wrong to walk away, which would only make things worse for those caught up in it. When the price paid by some is so high, it is hard to see how it could get worse; eradicating slavery and its traders does not feel like a journey anyone should indulge with much time.

    Should we still buy prawns? If the system is wrong, you have to change the system, not just the shopping list. That takes political engagement. Global retailers, producers and governments have the power to act now. And yet it is from a thousand small seeds of individual rebellion that pressure for political action grows.

  2. #2
    For Americans, the calculation is worrisome. Thailand is the United States’ second-largest supplier of foreign seafood. Of America's total seafood imports, one out of every six pounds comes from the Southeast Asian nation. The accounts of ex-slaves, Thai fishing syndicates, officials, exporters and anti-trafficking case workers, gathered by GlobalPost in a three-month investigation, illuminate an opaque offshore supply chain enmeshed in slavery.

  3. #3
    Two missing after escape from Thai fishing trawler
    11 June 2014

    A migrant worker from Burma unloads fish and prawns in Mahachai, Thailand.
    (Feliz Solomon/DVB)

    Two Burmese migrants are lost at sea after attempting to escape from a fishing boat off the coast of Thailand, Thai media reported. A third escapee made it to shore alive and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he reported the incident to local police.

    The survivor, 23-year-old Maung Lay, was trafficked into Thailand and sold to a boat owner in Thailand’s Phuket province about three weeks ago, according to the Thai Rath Daily. Maung Lay reportedly told police that a job broker promised him work at a fish-cracker factory for a fee of about US$300. The broker then facilitated his border crossing into Thailand and transport to the southwest coast.

    Maung Lay said he never arrived at the factory, and was instead forced to work long hours on a fishing boat with no breaks. After several weeks, he and two others decided to attempt an escape. He told police that he saw the other two men disappear into the water after swimming for several hours.

    The two have not yet surfaced and are presumed dead. Maung Lay washed up on the beaches of Thalang district on the evening of 8 June, where local villagers found him and took him to the hospital.

    “We found out about him from the hospital,” the superintendent of Tah Chat Chai Port police station told DVB by phone on Tuesday. “We are unable to determine exactly which boat they jumped from or the date of the incident.”

    Police said that action will be taken if the boat owner can be identified, and that Maung Lay will be deported for entering Thailand illegally.

    On Tuesday, The Guardian published a damning investigative report connecting forced labour on Thai fishing boats to retailers worldwide. The report claimed that the world’s largest producer of prawns, Charoen Pokphand, feeds its farmed prawns on fishmeal purchased from suppliers directly connected to boats manned by trafficked workers.

    Slave labour on Thailand’s so-called “ghost-ships” often comes from employment brokers, like the one mentioned by Maung Lay. This kind of human trafficking is so prevalent in Thailand’s multi-billion dollar seafood industry that the Thai Ministry of Labour established a separate police task force specifically for investigating boats and fisheries.

    Thailand is facing heavy pressure from the international community — particularly the United States — for endemic migrant abuses and a chronically poor record on human trafficking. The US State Department is due to release an annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report this month, which ranks trafficking records based on frequency, prosecutions and efforts to improve.

    Thailand has idled on the State Department’s “Tier-2 watchlist” for four consecutive years, which means that this year’s assessment must either raise or lower their ranking. A downgrade to Tier-3 status would subject Thailand to automatic economic sanctions.

  4. #4
    Thailand Lifer Jackthelad's Avatar
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    May 2014
    Report: Shrimp Sold at Walmart and Costco Are Produced by Slave Labor


    Next time you're out buying seafood, consider getting the lobster. A Guardian report revealsthat shrimp sold across the U.S. and U.K. are produced in part by slaves off the coast of Thailand who endure unimaginable violence and abuse.
    Charoen Pokphand Foods, or CP Foods, the world's largest shrimp farmer, is based in Thailand, and sells to retailers incluing Walmart, Costco, and Tesco. To feed its shrimp, the company uses a product called fishmeal, which it buys from suppliers who operate ships manned by men who are unwillingly sold into labor.
    The Guardian, which spoke with several escaped slaves, reports truly horrifying conditions on the fishmeal ships. Laborers work 20-hour days for no pay, and are tortured, beaten, and sometimes murdered. Some are given meth as fuel for a long shift. One former slave described the experience as such:
    "I thought I was going to die," said Vuthy, a former monk from Cambodia who was sold from captain to captain. "They kept me chained up, they didn't care about me or give me any food … They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings."
    Another man detailed witnessing an unfathomably gruesome killing:
    Another trafficking victim said he had seen as many as 20 fellow slaves killed in front of him, one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.
    When asked about the slavery, a CP spokesman claimed the company does not have "visibility" of the extent of the "issues" in its supply chain:
    "We're not here to defend what is going on," said Bob Miller, CP Foods' UK managing director. "We know there's issues with regard to the [raw] material that comes in [to port], but to what extent that is, we just don't have visibility."
    In another statement, the company — which claims it can eliminate its use of fishmeal by 2021 (seven years from now!) — pats itself on the back for making "good progress" in working with the Thai government to eliminate forced labor in the country, where nearly 500,000 people are believed to be enslaved:
    "We can do nothing, and witness these social and environmental issues destroy the seas around Thailand, or we can help drive improvement plans. We are making good progress."
    The government, by the admission of one of its own, is complicit in the practice. Because boat owners depend on slave brokers, an anonymous official told the Guardian, the state would rather turn a blind eye to the abuse.
    All of the retailers contacted for the story said they were against human trafficking and forced labor, and several claimed to be working with CP Foods to end the practice. Of course, there's something everyone can do to pitch in while CP is still buying from slave ships, stores are still buying from CP, and the Thai government is allowing all of it to happen: stop buying shrimp.
    Last edited by Jackthelad; 06-11-2014 at 07:19 PM.
    Who are you to judge the life I live?
    I know I'm not perfect
    -and I don't live to be-
    but before you start pointing fingers...
    make sure you hands are clean!”

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  5. #5
    Thailand Lifer Jackthelad's Avatar
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    May 2014
    This could well be politics at play here.

    Saying that there is a estimated 21 million supposed to be in slavery, why we not hear about more of this, the multi nationals do very well from slavery.
    Who are you to judge the life I live?
    I know I'm not perfect
    -and I don't live to be-
    but before you start pointing fingers...
    make sure you hands are clean!”

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  6. #6

    Trafficked into slavery on Thai trawlers to catch food for prawns

    The Thai fishing industry is built on slavery, with men often beaten, tortured and sometimes killed - all to catch 'trash fish' to feed the cheap farmed prawns sold in the west.
    There is nothing but a jagged line of splinters where Myint Thein’s teeth once stood – a painful reminder, he says, of the day he was beaten and sold on to a Thai fishing boat. The tattooed Burmese fisherman, 29, bears a number of other “reminders” of his life at sea: two deep cuts on each arm, calloused fingers contorted like claws and facial muscles that twitch involuntarily from fear. For the past two years, Myint Thein has been forced to work 20-hour days as a slave on the high seas, enduring regular beatings from his Thai captain and eating little more than a plate of rice each day. But now that he’s been granted a rare chance to come back to port, he’s planning something special to mark the occasion: his escape.
    Using a pair of rusty scissors, Myint Thein chops off his long, scraggly locks. He rinses himself down with a hose, slips on his only pair of trousers and, peering out at his surroundings, remembers not to open his mouth too wide. A man with no teeth is easy to remember.

    Under the tinny roof of Songkhla’s commercial port, on Thailand’s south-east coast, the imperial-blue cargo boat that brought Myint Thein back to shore is unloading its catch, barrel by barrel. The day’s international fish trading has just begun, and buyers are milling about in bright yellow rubber boots, running slimy scales between their fingers, as hobbling cats nibble at the fishbones and guts strewn across the pavement.
    Myint Thein doesn’t have much time to talk, so he tells us the basics. He paid a middleman two years ago to smuggle him across the border into Thailand and find him a job in a factory. After an arduous journey travelling through dense jungle, over bumpy roads and across rough waves, Myint Thein finally arrived in Kantang, a Thai port on its western, Andaman coast, where he discovered he’d been sold to a boat captain. “When I realised what had happened, I told them I wanted to go back,” he says hurriedly. “But they wouldn’t let me go. When I tried to escape, they beat me and smashed all my teeth.”
    For the next 20 months, Myint Thein and three other Burmese men who were also sold to the boat trawled international waters, catching anything from squid and tuna to “trash fish”, also known as bycatch – inedible or infant species of fish later ground into fishmeal for Thailand’s multibillion-dollar farmed prawn industry. The supply chain runs from the slaves through the fishmeal to the prawns to UK and US retailers. The product of Myint Thein’s penniless labour might well have ended up on your dinner plate.

    Despite public promises to clean up the industry, many Thai officials not only turn a blind eye to abuse, the Guardian found, they are often complicit in it, from local police through to high-ranking politicians and members of the judiciary – meaning that slaves often have nowhere to turn when they have the opportunity to run.
    “One day I was stopped by the police and asked if I had a work permit,” says Ei Ei Lwin, 29, a Burmese migrant who was detained on the docks at Songkhla port. “They wanted a 10,000 baht (£180) bribe to release me. I didn’t have it, and I didn’t know anyone else who would, so they took me to a secluded area, handed me over to a broker, and sent me to work on a trawler.”

  7. #7

    Thailand produces roughly 4.2m tonnes of seafood every year, 90% of which is destined for export, official figures show. The US, UK and EU are prime buyers of this seafood – with Americans buying half of all Thailand’s seafood exports and the UK alone consuming nearly 7% of all Thailand’s prawn exports.
    “The use of trafficked labour is systematic in the Thai fishing industry,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, who describes a “predatory relationship” between these migrant workers and the captains who buy them.

    “The industry would have a hard time operating in its current form without it.”
    Speaking on condition of anonymity, a high-ranking broker explained to the Guardian how Thai boat owners phone him directly with their “order”: the quantity of men they need and the amount they’re willing to pay for them.
    “Each guy costs about 25,000-35,000 baht [£450-£640] – we go find them,” explains the goateed broker, who operates out of the industrial fishing and prawn-processing hub of Samut Sakhon, just south of the capital, Bangkok.

    “The boat owner finds the way to pay and then that debt goes to the labourers.”
    At various points along the way, checkpoints are passed and officials bribed – with Thai border police often playing an integral role.
    “Police and brokers – the way I see it – we’re business partners,” explains the broker, who claims to have trafficked thousands of migrants into Thailand over the past five years. “We have officers working on both sides of the Thai-Burmese border. If I can afford the bribe, I let the cop sit in the car and we take the main road.
    “This is a big chain,” he adds. “You have to understand: everyone’s profiting from it. These are powerful people with powerful positions – politicians.”

    The price captains pay for these men is a extremely low even by historical standards. According to the anti-trafficking activist Kevin Bales, slaves cost 95% less than they did at the height of the 19th-century slave trade – meaning that they are not regarded as investments for important cash crops such as cotton or sugar, as they were historically, but as disposable commodities.

    For the migrants who believed Thailand would bring them opportunity, the reality of being sent out to sea is devastating.
    “They told me I was going to work in a pineapple factory,” recalls Kyaw, a broad-shouldered 21-year-old from rural Burma. “But when I saw the boats, I realised I’d been sold … I was so depressed, I wanted to die.”

  8. #8

    Life on a 15-metre trawler is brutal, violent and unpredictable. Many of the slaves interviewed by the Guardian recalled being fed just a plate of rice a day. Men would take fitful naps in sleeping quarters so cramped they would crawl to enter them, before being summoned back out to trawl fish at any hour. Those who were too ill to work were thrown overboard, some interviewees reported, while others said they were beaten if they so much as took a lavatory break.
    Many of these slave ships stay out at sea for years at a time, trading slaves from one boat to another and being serviced by cargo boats, which travel out from Thai ports towards international borders to pick up the slave boats’ catch and drop off supplies.

    The vessels catch fish and shellfish for domestic and international markets, including roughly 350,000 tonnes of trash fish, every year, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). This trash fish is separated at sea and ferried back on cargo boats to shore, where it is ground down and turned into fishmeal for multinational companies such as CP Foods, which use it in animal feed for prawn, pig and chicken farming.

    CP in turn supplies food retailers and giant international supermarkets including Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour, Costco, Morrisons, the Co-operative and Iceland, with frozen and fresh prawns, and ready-made meals.

    source :
    Last edited by Mid; 06-14-2014 at 09:51 AM. Reason: added link

  9. #9
    CPF chief defends labour policy

    The Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF) chief has defended the company's policy of protecting labourers and improving Thailand's fishing industry.

    President and CEO Adirek Sripratak said the firm had joined hands with the Thai Fishery Producers Coalition to put an end to illegal labour including child and enslaved workers.

    The group comprises eight fishing associations, government agencies and international organisations such as the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation and International Labour Organisation.

    Its goal is to build consumer confidence in line with Thai and international labour standards and laws, he added.

    The CPF executive came out to clarify the firm's policy for the first time after a Guardian newspaper report accusing the company of buying fishmeal which it feeds to its farmed prawns from some suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats said to be using slave labour.

    CP clarifies Guardian slavery report

    Fishmeal is an ingredient in making fish feeds for its farmed prawns.

    CPF had already clarified the stance after the report was made public.

    Mr Adirek said CPF had provided an incentive to fishmeal producers by paying premium prices for products certified of legal sources by the Fisheries Department.

    “We're well aware of this issue and have stepped up the policy by implementing various activities. CPF also strongly supports the industry's move to concentrate on responsibility and sustainability. At present, we don’t buy fishmeal without certified documents,” Mr Adirek said.

    Last Thursday, the France-based Carrefour decided to stop purchasing shrimp products from CPF as a result of the Guardian report.

    CPF is now clarifying the facts to the hypermarket chain for better understanding.

    Trading with the French partner is expected to resume after the detailed explanations by CPF, Mr Adirek said.

    CPF’s export value to Carrefour reached 130 million baht, accounting for 0.03% of its total sales last year.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Jackthelad View Post

    This could well be politics at play here.

    This has been underreported for a number of years now

    “If someone had caught up to me, I was prepared to fight,” he said. “But I never looked back. I was thinking only of survival.” So said a Burma Slave. This 2009 article is from the GlobalPost, Nov 29.
    Last edited by Mid; 06-21-2014 at 08:02 PM. Reason: addd link

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