In Thailand, poor migrant workers and children are being sold to factories to conduct the tedious task of peeling shrimp. The shrimp makes its way to global supply chains, eventually ending up at places like Walmart and Red Lobster.
One such factory that was recently broken up was the Gig Peeling Factory. In the factory, almost 100 Burmese workers were essentially trapped, as they worked for almost no pay. These laborers spent 16 hours per day with their hands numb from ice water. They would continuously rip the heads, guts, tails and heads off of shrimp.
Some of the workers were extremely young, with one girl being so small that she had to stand on a stool in order to reach the peeling table. The workers were stuck there for months or even years, and they weren’t allowed to stop or rest because someone was always watching.
Former factory worker Tin Nyo Win, who earned just $4 per day, said, “I was shocked after working there a while, and I realized there was no way out.”
Another factory worker, 16 year old Eae Hpaw added, “They didn't let us rest. We stopped working around seven in the evening. We would take a shower and sleep. Then we would start again around three in the morning.”
With widespread investigation into slave labor in Thailand’s seafood industry, more than 2,000 trapped workers have been freed this year. Additionally, dozens of people have been arrested, and millions of dollars in properties and equipment has been seized. Meanwhile, Thai officials have said that they are working on new federal laws to combat these issues.
Human trafficking practices have resulted in Thailand becoming one of the largest shrimp providers in the world. While there have been countless promises by both corporations and the Thai government to clean up the country’s $7 billion seafood export industry, there are still widespread instances of abuse.
The industry is plagued by corruption, with police officers being paid off and generally looking the other way. Indeed, arrests and prosecutions for slave labor in Thailand are quite rare. Most raids simply result in undocumented laborers going to jail, while factory owners go unpunished.
The practice can even go unnoticed by corporate CEOs who don’t know exactly where their product is coming from or what process it goes through. CEO of leading seafood supplier Aqua Star Dirk Leuenberger was outraged to learn that slave labor was fueling the supply chain of his business.
Leuenberger said, “I want to eliminate this. I think it's disgusting that it's even remotely part of my business.”
Meanwhile, officials from Red Lobster offered a typical rhetoric about how they strive to be compliant with ethical standards.
Red Lobster said in a statement, “As the world's largest seafood restaurant, we know the important role we play in setting and ensuring compliance with seafood industry standards, and we're committed to doing our part to make sure the seafood we buy and serve is sourced in a way that is ethical, responsible and sustainable.”
Meanwhile, Thai suppliers, such as Thai Union, insist to companies that they work to keep slavery and other abuses out of their factories. Still, this hasn’t stopped atrocious acts of forced labor from occurring.
Thai Union CEO Thiraphong Chansiri admitted, “Illicitly sourced product may have fraudulently entered its supply chain.”
According to anti-trafficking ambassador of the State Department of the United States Susan Coppledge, the problems continue because the offenders are not being held accountable. She says that the best way to stop the problem is to simply not purchase products that are produced by slavery.
With the corrupt government in Thailand, it is unlikely that Thai officials will do anything to curb the problem. The one saving grace is that we, as consumers, can fight against forced labor by making better choices about which companies we support.