A recent investigation by the Guardian in Southeast Asia has shed light on one of the darkest practices in the world: slave labor. Human trafficking of forced workers is far from something of the past and this sobering discovery shows just how close to home it gets.
Thailand is the largest prawn exporter in the world, shipping out 500,000 tons of shrimp annually in an estimated $7.3 billion industry. Ten percent of the supply comes from Chareon Pokphand (CP) Foods.
The goods are distributed to a handful of major international grocery retailers whose names are commonplace in Western households. The list of recipients includes huge outlets like Costco and Walmart in the United States and Carrefour and Tesco in Britain as well as a few additional European chains.
A six-month investigation by the Guardian revealed that slave labor fuels a majority of CP Food’s shrimp business through a chain of resource suppliers. The prawns themselves are grown in farms, but the source of the fishmeal that feeds the animals is linked to forced labor under inhumane conditions.
The fishmeal is produced by suppliers that own or buy the seafood byproduct from slave-manned ships and sold to CP Foods. Interviews with escaped slaves took investigators deep into the workings of the fishmeal trade which operates on illegal terms in international waters off the Thai coast.
The escapees report being forced to work 20 hour shifts at a time with no pay. The men were kept in chains and offered methamphetamines to keep them working through fatigue. They endured regular beatings, public-style executions and extreme torture which often led to death.
One of the most gruesome tales of execution involved a slave laborer whose limbs were tied to the bows of four boats and then pulled apart.
This is not the first time attention has been brought to the conditions of sea vessel workers in Thailand. Non-government Organizations and the U.N. have raised alarm multiple times over the past four years about the presence of slave labor in the country. There are currently 500,000 forced workers in Thailand according to the Thai government itself, with 300,000 in the fishing industry alone.
Thai brokers supply the majority of the workforce, 90 percent of which is made up of duped migrants from countries such as Cambodia and Burma. The immigrants pay the brokers to help them find work and are instead sold into slavery for as low as $420.
An anonymous government worker in Thailand told the Guardian that government officials are tied up with the Thai mafia in the human trafficking business and are reluctant to take preventative action. While the retail giants each take a different approach to their own investigations and negotiations, human rights groups and even CP Foods are calling for consumers to force action by boycotting prawns from the suppliers.
Slavery is illegal in every country in the world but 21 million men, women and children are enslaved globally according to the International Labor Organization. Thailand runs the risk of standing with North Korea and Iran at a tier 3 grade, the lowest U.S. ranking on the human trafficking index.
— Edward Heinrich