Munching on a shrimp cocktail at a holiday party? Tossing in conveniently pre-peeled shrimp as part of your stir fry? Ever wonder who did the dirty work of cleaning and processing this seafood? An investigation reveals that it could likely be a migrant or even a child laborer, victimized by human trafficking and forced labor. The report by the Associated Press (AP) has uncovered a horrific system inside the shrimp industry in Thailand: modern slavery.
Migrants arrive in Thailand from the surrounding countries of Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos with tales of high-paying jobs and a better life for their families. What they find is a nightmare with little chance of escape. Often told they owe their “bosses” hundreds of dollars once they arrive, the trap of slavery is sprung. What follows could be a life of standing in front of never-ending piles of shrimp for over fifteen hours a day, pulling off the heads, guts, and shells. (Too short to reach the counter because you are only eight years old? They give you a stool.) Meager wages are often withheld and barely cover the cost of living each day. The alternatives are threats of arrest or death, being handcuffed to a fellow worker, being followed into the streets and even kidnaped.
Where does the shrimp end up? This morally tainted food was traced to all 50 states in the U.S. The AP investigation followed shrimp from these slave labor processing plants, tracking it across the ocean and into Whole Foods, Red Lobster, Kroger, Petco, Olive Garden, and Wal-Mart plus as an ingredient in multiple other widely distributed seafood products. Now that the AP investigation has revealed the source of this food, retail stores are questioning distributors. Distributors are questioning suppliers. And, finally, suppliers will have to take a close look at processors and the individual lives where this chain begins.
But it can be difficult to discern in the huge web of supply chains. Export companies claim to abhor human rights abuses, but unless more pressure is put on them by consumers it is likely this practice will persist. So the next time you toss in ready-to-cook shrimp into your stir fry, consider how and why it is so conveniently peeled.