Thailand is the world’s third largest exporter of seafood and seafood products. The European Union imported more than $1.15 billion worth of seafood from Thailand in 2013, while the value of seafood imports by the United States exceeded $1.6 billion in 2014. If you live in the US or Europe and purchase shrimp at your local supermarket, it likely came from Thailand, and it is just as likely that it came from slave boats. The situation is pervasive, occurring across sectors, from fishers to processors and in different species, so it is not just shrimp but other seafood products as well.
Trafficking of men and boys from Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand onto fishing boats by brokers is widespread. The majority of these boys and men are illiterate, recruited from rural areas where jobs are scarce. Unfortunately, Thai government officials for years have either turned a blind eye or are complicit in these abuses. Even though last year the State Department blacklisted Thailand for failing to meet minimum standards in fighting human trafficking, placing the country in the ranks of North Korea, Syria and Iran, there were no additional sanctions. The United States continues to buy about 20 percent of the country’s $7 billion annual exports in the industry.
Research conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the International Labour Organization (ILO), Thai academic institutions, international and national nongovernmental organizations, and global trade union federations has uncovered that work on Thai fishing vessels is extremely abusive. Problems include widespread and systematic use of forced labor, frequent physical abuse leading in some cases to extrajudicial killings, excessive work hours ranging up to 20 hours per day, non-payment of wages, inadequate food and medical services, and dangerous working conditions causing serious injuries to workers.
Crewmembers have reported being punched, beaten with metal rods, deprived of sleep, imprisoned without food or water, and forced to continue working after injury. Travel documents are often confiscated and withheld; cases of abandonment are also reported. Violations of fair and promised pay are common, particularly the extraction of “agency fees” and the withholding of pay at the end of the contract period. Recruited crew members may pay up to several times their supposed monthly wage for these “fees”, and there have been reported examples of fishers working without pay for several years.
The Thai fishing industry remains heavily reliant on trafficked and forced labor. Poor and chaotic fisheries management has resulted in the majority of Thailand’s fisheries becoming over-exploited. As boat operators have looked to cut costs, working conditions and wages have suffered, causing many workers to turn away from the industry. This situation has led to a significant labor shortage, with a shortfall estimated to be as high as 50,000 people and increasing. This labor shortage fuels abusive practices in the fishing industry, with employers and brokers resorting to deception, corruption, coercion and violence in order to meet the demand for workers.
Fishing boat owners and captains have regularly resisted efforts to regulate conditions of work on fishing boats, and have denied that abuses occur. The profit margin for them is considerable. Widespread human trafficking and abuse is allowed to continue, in part, because the supply chain remains a black box, even to those within the industry. Even though most distributors, buyers, and exporters of seafood are aware that human rights abuse is a problem in the industry, most of them do not believe it happens in their company’s supply chain.
Consumers are also blind to this situation on many fronts. Between 25 and 70 percent of all fish sold in North America and Europe is mislabeled—wrong species or wrong country of origin. As a result of mislabeling, consumers do not know what kind fish they buy, where it comes from, or the human cost involved in fishing it. The fish we buy and eat do not have a story.
Customers are willing to pay for a story, and that willingness to pay can be a vehicle for profound environmental and social change. For instance, Starbucks tells its customers the story of Fair Trade coffee, and customers at the supermarket buy cage-free eggs and grass-fed beef based on the story behind the products. These labels and the stories they tell are about making the world a better, fairer and more compassionate place, and customers are willing to pay for that.
With regards to seafood, a consumer who understands that the reduced price of seafood at the local supermarket is the result of the slavery and inhumane treatment of those who fish it, or the result of unsustainable fishing practices, might prefer to pay a higher price for seafood caught by a local fisherman who fishes sustainably and who treats its employees with dignity. The story matters.
Bar codes and auditable traceability technology can help the supply chain carry better stories. However, customers must also do their part and demand a more responsible fishing industry even if prices for seafood increase. Some argue that customers will not pay more for their seafood regardless of where it comes from, but fifteen years ago, many argued that no one would pay extra for coffee that delivered a guaranteed price to farmers, and today Fair Trade coffee is everywhere. For those who care about human rights and sustainability, the first step is to ask for the fish with a good story.