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Walmart, Costco tied to slave labor in shrimp industry

Published time: June 10, 2014 23:04
Edited time: June 17, 2014 00:10
Reuters / Kevork Djansezian

Reuters / Kevork Djansezian

The world’s largest shrimp farmer gets fishmeal used to feed its crop from suppliers that use slave labor, according to a new investigative report. It then sells its farm-raised shrimp to food retail giants, including Walmart and Costco in the US.

Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, based in Thailand, uses fishmeal, a commercial product made from fish and the bones and offal (or entrails) from processed fish, to feed the shrimp it farms. That fishmeal is bought from suppliers using “large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats,” the Guardian reported after a six-month investigation into the industry. CP Foods is the world’s largest shrimp farmer, and supplies the seafood to global retailers like Walmart, Costco, Carrefour and Tesco.

“Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings,” the Guardian reported.

“Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.”

There are an estimated two to three million migrant workers in Thailand, the bulk of whom are from Burma (now known as Myanmar), the US State Department noted in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.

In 2013, the report listed Thailand as a member of the Tier 2 Watch List, it’s second-worst designation, meaning its government does not meet the standards laid out in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (originally passed by Congress in 2000), “but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards,” yet slave labor is still increasing, according to the report’s definitions and methodology.

The majority of captive laborers used by the fishmeal suppliers are from Myanmar and Cambodia. Of the Burmans in the Thai seafood industry, 57 percent of the 430 workers surveyed experienced conditions of forced labor, according to the 2013 TIP report. A January 2011 report cited in the TIP said, “Burmese, Cambodian, and Thai men were trafficked onto Thai fishing boats that traveled throughout Southeast Asia and beyond, where they remained at sea for up to several years, not paid, forced to work 18 to 20 hours per day for seven days a week, and threatened and physically beaten.”

"I thought I was going to die," Vuthy, a former monk from Cambodia who was sold from captain to captain, said to the Guardian. "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."

In 2013, Thailand was to be designated as a Tier 3 country on the TIP list, which would allow the country to face mandatory “targeted sanctions” that cut “non-humanitarian, non-trade-related foreign assistance” from the US, until Secretary of State John Kerry issued a pardon to the country, Global Post reported at the time.

“But after [the 2013] reprieve, according to US law, Thailand is out of pardons,” the Global Post wrote. “This means that, to stave off US sanctions, it must finally execute enough raids and arrests in the next 12 months to prove its sincerity in attacking traffickers.”

The Guardian investigation likely foreshadows that the US will drop the Asian country, in the midst of a military coup that began in late May, down to Tier 3 when it releases its 2014 report later in June. The new government has asked the State Department to overlook the country’s current political problems, or else the credibility of the report would be discounted by the new leaders, Undercurrent News reported.

"I trust you will let the merits of our case speak for themselves. Thailand has made clear progress in combating human trafficking. We are ready to do more in keeping to our firm belief in the dignity,” Thai permanent secretary for foreign affairs Sihasak Phuangketkaew wrote in a letter to Kerry, according to the Bangkok Post.

"There might be a political dimension to the report, but the TIP office should mostly consider our efforts to combat trafficking, which have made notable progress," Songsak Saicheua, director-general of the American and South Pacific Affairs Department, said to the Bangkok Post.

Yet the Guardian report shows little action by either the old government or the coup-installed one to combat slave labor in the “unregulated industry run by criminals and the Thai mafia.”

"The Thai authorities could get rid of the brokers and arrange [legal] employment," one high-ranking Thai official, who is tasked with investigating human trafficking cases, said on condition of anonymity. "But the government doesn't want to do that, it doesn't want to take action. As long as [boat] owners still depend on brokers – and not the government – to supply workers, then the problem will never go away."

In the meantime, the new government’s promises are of little consolation to the country’s slave laborers. "We'd get beaten even if we worked hard," one trafficking victim told the Guardian. "All the Burmese, [even] on all the other boats, were trafficked. There were so many of us [slaves] it would be impossible to count them all."

A group of 14 men from Myanmar rescued from boats last year has been in a government shelter in the south of Thailand, where they are working with the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a British-based human rights charity, to build a case against their slave drivers. But most are now disillusioned and more interested in just going home than finding justice, Steve Trent, founding director of the EJF, told CNN.

"It's not good enough to say the judicial process is slow in Thailand,” Trent said. “In effect they are punishing these people again. They are the innocents involved."

The Guardian says it was able to trace the supply chain for the first time: “Slave ships plying international waters off Thailand scoop up huge quantities of 'trash fish', infant or inedible fish. The Guardian traced this fish on landing to factories where it is ground down into fishmeal for onward sale to CP Foods.”

CP Foods sells its own-brand fishmeal, supplied by slave ships, to other farms. It also sells frozen and cooked shrimp that eat the fishmeal, as well as ready-made meals, to food manufacturers and retailers around the world, the Guardian reported.

"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."

Walmart, already under fire for its working conditions in the US and its link to a deadly fire at a factory in Bangladesh, told the Guardian it is actively engaged in this issue and playing an important role in bringing together stakeholders to help eradicate human trafficking from Thailand’s seafood export sector.”

Costco said it requires its suppliers of Thai shrimp “to take corrective action to police their feedstock sources.”

But, in the end, it may not matter what the corporations buying CP Foods’ products have to say.

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

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