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Supermarket slave trail
June 10, 2014 1:04 PM   Subscribe

A six-month investigation has established that large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand are integral to the production of prawns (commonly called shrimp in the US) sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.
So it turns out many of the prawns on sale at your local supermarket are produced by slave labour.
posted by MartinWisse (64 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Of course they are.

* places head in hands and weeps *

posted by blue_beetle at 1:06 PM on June 10 [7 favorites]


Produce in America has forced labor problems as well.

Execs who haven't ordered a thorough vetting of each link in their supply chain should be tossed in jail.
posted by jsturgill at 1:12 PM on June 10 [8 favorites]


i'll add this to reasons i don't like shrimp besides the fact they look like bugs.
now they are bugs picked by slaves.

sigh.

jstrugill - they'll just pass the buck - "oh we didn't know...so and so lower level exec said they had checked and everything was a-ok." and then some line manager somehwere will take the fall and go into bankruptcy because they can't get unemployment because they were fired "for cause".

sigh sigh.
posted by sio42 at 1:13 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Just some additional detail -- the slaves are working aboard the fishing fleet that nets "trash fish" that is ground into fish meal that is then fed to the farmed prawns (and to other fish meal consumers, presumably).
The supply chain works in this way: 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. The company uses this fishmeal to feed its farmed prawns, which it then ships to international customers.
posted by notyou at 1:14 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I'm actually really surprised to see Costco on this list, considering the company mentality towards its own workers and supply chains.

Guess I'm boycotting shrimp now.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 1:15 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


Although slavery is illegal in every country in the world, including Thailand,

i did not know this. i figured there were still some holdouts. but i guess there's defacto slavery all over the world, even if the government has officially said slavery is illegal.
posted by sio42 at 1:17 PM on June 10


I lived in Texas for most of my adult life, and I remember (not very many years before the Deepwater Horizon/BP disaster) a commercial from the Louisiana Shrimp Board or similar to the tune of "don't buy Asian shrimp/oysters/crawfish", which was the first time I thought very hard about where my delicious bottom-feeders were coming from.

I pretty much quit eating them, after the spill. I haven't bothered to see if any of them can be ethically sourced from California or Baja. I am not sure it is feasible to mass-produce those items, wild or farmed, without significant human cost just based on size and format.

I have uncomfortable quibbles about basically all my food now, since I don't have the means to grow more than a token few meals' worth. Even my farm-to-market lettuce is pretty likely grown in a stew of human exploitation (and excrement!).
posted by Lyn Never at 1:17 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


The invisible hand chokes 1/3 of the world to squeeze out cheap and profitable goods for the rest of us.

Why? Because it's invisible.

Until capitalism deals, meaningfully & structurally, with the ability of sellers to turn production events into externalities, labor violations, environmental degradation, substandard and dangerous products will continue to infest the world.
posted by lalochezia at 1:18 PM on June 10 [31 favorites]


Another trafficking victim said he had seen as many as 20 fellow slaves killed in front of him, one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.

I'm not going to say that I don't believe most of this story, or that the conditions on board these ships must be horrible, but that particular detail just seems too dramatic to be true. Why would fishing captains, even those who use slave labor, waste that much time and energy to kill one guy?
posted by Curious Artificer at 1:21 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


Read this earlier today - it's a very good piece of investigative journalism. I hope that shining a media spotlight on this sort of thing can help consumers make the kind of choices that will put pressure on the retailers, because money is the only language they understand.

I'm also glad the piece didn't pull any punches in describing what was actually going on, because I can't be ambiguous about how maybe it isn't so bad after all when I've read things like
Another trafficking victim said he had seen as many as 20 fellow slaves killed in front of him, one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.
Because. Yeah. That's what really drove it home for me, and now I'm done with any shrimp that doesn't do the shrimp equivalent of showing me a local passport and a birth certificate. (North Sea shrimp are still okay?)
posted by harujion at 1:22 PM on June 10


i guess there's defacto slavery all over the world, even if the government has officially said slavery is illegal.

Quite. It is an ordinary and ubiquitous fact of life in Sudan for example, and perhaps most egregiously in the Gulf States given their wealth, superficial modernity and interconnectedness with the global economy.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:23 PM on June 10


There is no reason to eat shrimp or prawns.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:24 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


Why would fishing captains, even those who use slave labor, waste that much time and energy to kill one guy?

To keep the rest in line?
posted by edeezy at 1:26 PM on June 10 [6 favorites]


And after posting and seeing Curious Artificer's reaction:

Because in modern slavery human lives are cheap as chips, and the fear you instill in the survivors is priceless. Drawing and quartering is an old favorite.

With the sort of horrifying things people are doing to their fellow humans every day I have absolutely no reason not to believe these survivors' descriptions of what happened.
posted by harujion at 1:27 PM on June 10 [13 favorites]


There is no reason to eat shrimp or prawns.

The same thing can be said of literally any food.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 1:28 PM on June 10 [10 favorites]


But not, in the end, of every food.
posted by Mister_A at 1:29 PM on June 10 [6 favorites]


Disruptors challenging the failed business model of a stagnant, bloated industry!
posted by Thorzdad at 1:30 PM on June 10 [6 favorites]


I'm actually really surprised to see Costco on this list, considering the company mentality towards its own workers and supply chains.

They probably didn't look deep enough, or when they did, this company was using a different source of food for the shrimp. It seems pretty clear that the company actually selling the shrimp isn't using slave labor, nor is the company that's supplying the fishmeal that's doing so -- it's the companies and boats that are actually catching the fish.

Note that The Grauniad worked on this story for six months before they published it -- it wasn't very obvious, indeed, it may have been set up to hide the fact.
posted by eriko at 1:32 PM on June 10 [7 favorites]


Is there any sorts of anti-slavery operations on the high seas?
posted by psycho-alchemy at 1:34 PM on June 10


It will be interesting to see if there is any fall out from the Costco/retailer end with this discovery. I know that Costco had a lot of issues after their peanut butter incident, I can't imagine human trafficking will get a lesser response
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 1:44 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Why would fishing captains, even those who use slave labor, waste that much time and energy to kill one guy?

Have you met human beings? You know some of them have a hella sadistic streak.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:44 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


"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."

"We know its happening, we have no idea how to stop it (subtext: without putting profits in danger)." At least they are most earnest than the obligatory "We are investigating.../cooperating with../taking the matter very seriously..."
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 1:55 PM on June 10


So that's bananas, tomatoes, quinoa, prawns, and european olive oil (contamination, not slave labor). What other foods belong on the "cannot eat ethically" list? Is chocolate ok? I've heard both yes and no.
posted by Justinian at 1:57 PM on June 10


Why would fishing captains, even those who use slave labor, waste that much time and energy to kill one guy?

Pour encourager les autres.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:57 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


The same thing can be said of literally any food.

Well, not every food has these kind of issues.
posted by mcstayinskool at 2:00 PM on June 10


Damn, it. I knew in my heart that shrimp was probably too cheap.
posted by straight at 2:10 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]


Anybody have some "shrimp is slave labor" stickers we can add to the shrimp labels in stores? Really hard to remove ones, preferably.
posted by the big lizard at 2:11 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I'm not going to say that I don't believe most of this story, or that the conditions on board these ships must be horrible, but that particular detail just seems too dramatic to be true. Why would fishing captains, even those who use slave labor, waste that much time and energy to kill one guy?
Union Busting, or maybe he had leadership skills which were a threat, so he was made an example of. Perhaps it was for sport...
posted by Oyéah at 2:12 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Reasons to avoid farmed SE Asian prawns;

1. Farmed by slaves

2. Environmental devastation after their harvest.

3. They taste terrible.

See, even if slavery and the environment are topics you can rationalize away, the third isn't. I stopped eating them first because they taste like watery mealy crap, then had my decision reinforced by the destruction shrimp farming causes.
posted by Keith Talent at 2:12 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


Okay; you guys are probably right, and I thought of all those reasons too. It's just that detail seems a lot like something you would say if you wanted to embellish a story.
posted by Curious Artificer at 2:21 PM on June 10


wild-caught american prawns don't have this problem.
posted by bruce at 2:25 PM on June 10


Curious Artificer: "Why would fishing captains, even those who use slave labor, waste that much time and energy to kill one guy?"

Control through fear. I imagine slaves on these ships outnumber captains and other overseers. How do you keep a group of people in check that could, with some losses, overpower you? By instilling fear in the worst ways possible.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:30 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Shrimp farms are also one of the wildly unregulated uses of antibiotics. They fester prawns in excrement and terrible waters to get as many produced as possible, and as a result, they're pumped full of antibiotics that further advance disease resistance. All around, nasty sea bugs.
posted by msbutah at 2:35 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


It's amazing it's cheaper to ship the product from Asia than to buy fresh from American shrimpers.

Louisiana Seafood
Alabama Gulf Seafood
South Atlantic Seafoodposted by four panels at 2:39 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


We all beneft from the expoitation creators because the exploitation trickles down (the food chain).
posted by davemee at 2:41 PM on June 10


[W]ild-caught [A]merican prawns don't have this problem.

Although if they're anything like European North Sea prawns, they may be caught in rich country waters then shipped to dodgy seafood processors in Thailand for processing, before returning to where they were caught to be sold.
posted by ambrosen at 2:41 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:44 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Also, prawn trawl fisheries tend to have the highest bycatch rates of any fishery. Which is by no means slave labor, but definitely falls within the environmental devastation category.
posted by deadbilly at 2:45 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Yup, just further justifying my decision to stop eating seafood for the most part.
posted by limeonaire at 2:58 PM on June 10


I really wish the human race could figure out ways to produce mass quantities of food in ways that were efficient and yet not inevitably totally fucking monstrous.
posted by mstokes650 at 3:02 PM on June 10


There are alternatives to slave-labor shrimp and unsustainable global fisheries. The example I know of is Walking Fish. Some Duke grad students worked with North Carolina fisherfolk to get this amazing community supported fishery started, focused on sustainable stuff that can be caught off the NC coast. It's like a CSA in that you have to eat seasonally and you may not always recognize the stuff you get, but everyone I know who is a member adores it.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:02 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


There are alternatives to slave-labor shrimp and unsustainable global fisheries.

On an individual level, sure. But on a global, capable-of-feeding-7-billion-and-up scale? I haven't seen a lot of evidence that farm share type programs can be scaled up to feed the whole planet.
posted by mstokes650 at 3:14 PM on June 10


I really wish the human race could figure out ways to produce mass quantities of food in ways that were efficient

Well, here's one way (described in more detail here).
posted by ambrosen at 3:16 PM on June 10


I really wish the human race could figure out ways to produce mass quantities of food in ways that were efficient

Synagro Technologies. Every day the process thousands of tons of shit from the generous citizens of New York City and turn it into fertilizer.
posted by stbalbach at 3:23 PM on June 10


There are alternatives to slave-labor shrimp and unsustainable global fisheries.

On an individual level, sure. But on a global, capable-of-feeding-7-billion-and-up scale? I haven't seen a lot of evidence that farm share type programs can be scaled up to feed the whole planet.
posted by mstokes650 at 6:14 PM on June 10 [+] [!]


Globally, we aren't even trying, and many people have never even heard of such an option. That's why I brought it up. As the easier and more familiar global fisheries collapse, people all over the world will be seeking alternate forms of protein. I don't think it's a terrible idea to start thinking about what those might be.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:32 PM on June 10 [2 favorites]


I really wish the human race could figure out ways to produce mass quantities of food in ways that were efficient and yet not inevitably totally fucking monstrous.

We've known how to do this for hundreds (thousands?) of years. I don't think there's a way to do it while eating animals, but a vegetarian human population can live off of dramatically less land, and exponentially less suffering.

I doubt if it'll ever happen though.
posted by DGStieber at 4:40 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


Say I enjoy eating shrimp. Where can I as a Canadian get shrimp that is more ethically and sustainably raised? Is this even a possibility? How trustworthy is what's being caught in the Gulf of Mexico post Deepwater Horizon?



Also, is there a source of animal protein that won't destroy the earth if it is scaled up to feed 7+ billion people?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:45 PM on June 10


Also, is there a source of animal protein that won't destroy the earth if it is scaled up to feed 7+ billion people?

I can't guarantee feeding 7+ billion people, but I think the closest you're going to get will be some kind of insect...
posted by Jimbob at 4:48 PM on June 10 [4 favorites]


Jimbob: I can't guarantee feeding 7+ billion people, but I think the closest you're going to get will be some kind of insect...

Everyone always proposes this, but I don't know. Insects have pretty primitive immune systems and are somewhat prone to being wiped out by disease if grown in significant concentrations. It takes a lot, but it takes a lot of insects to get a significant biomass together, too.
posted by Mitrovarr at 4:57 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


its all about biodiversity, yo.

that, and a combination of fungi/insect slurry
posted by rebent at 5:04 PM on June 10


Insects make the fungi slurry crunchy.
posted by Pudhoho at 5:22 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Interestingly Australia's own CSIRO has just recently developed fish-free prawn food that is better for shrimps, environment, and obs other fish as well.
posted by smoke at 6:04 PM on June 10 [3 favorites]


This has been known for ages, and it is so great to see it hitting international headlines. The org I work with has several families whose fathers and brothers are gone to Thailand for fishing and never heard from again. You get some money upfront, the promise of a big payout when you get to port and - you get sick or injured, over the side you go. You get back to port and the boat owner has arranged for police to grab their illegal crew when they land so they don't have to pay them. If you're lucky, eventually you get deported home.

I don't understand why it's so brutal in Thailand. The Vietnam fishing industry doesn't have the same reputation, nor the Cambodian fishing, what little there is. It's some accident of history that Thai fishing boats were big enough at some point to supply the international chains and there was enough cheap migrant labour coming in and it tipped over into this horrible deadly industry.

I think a big reason this is invisible is because it is slavery that happens mainly to teenage boys and adult men who choose to enter labour trafficking chains. It's very hard to get donor sympathy for them, even though they have (in my experience) the same motivations to feed their families back home and hope for decent employment as a teenage girl signing on to be a domestic maid overseas. It's a huge blindspot in human trafficking because it's industrial and the people being tortured and killed are seen as less vulnerable somehow.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:43 PM on June 10 [15 favorites]


Spot prawns are what we prefer out here.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 9:53 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Prawns and Shrimp, while related, are not exactly the same animal.
posted by hippybear at 11:49 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I used to live in an area where this happened. Didn't know it at the time, but I suspect a portion of the reason it gets swept under the rug is the racism that non-ethnic-Thais get in the area. EVERYTHING bad around there is blamed on sea-gypsies, Burmese, and Cambodians (and occasionally on a few other groups, depending on who you're talking to). There's also religious and class based hatred (because OF COURSE THERE IS IN THAILAND), but the racism can be pretty palpable sometimes.

Another important thing is that the army is in on all this, and so is the navy.

Kind of makes me think about when the army was towing boats out to sea full of refugees, then destroying their engines and leaving them to drift away and maybe/maybe not die.
posted by Sedition at 1:47 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Although if they're anything like European North Sea prawns, they may be caught in rich country waters then shipped to dodgy seafood processors in Thailand for processing, before returning to where they were caught to be sold.

Hmm, the "processing" seems to be peeling specifically. I guess if I buy locally (UK/European seas) fished, raw, shell-on prawns I'm probably OK right? If the prawns were caught in the immediate area and basically unprocessed (beyond perhaps freezing and thawing), it seems like there's no reason for them to have been shipped to Thailand and back.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:08 AM on June 11


I really wish the human race could figure out ways to produce mass quantities of food in ways that were efficient and yet not inevitably totally fucking monstrous.

No no no no.

This isn't the issue. We absolutely can produce enough food to feed everyone. Markets and prices are what's driving this phenomenon.

It's not like these fishermen are working as slaves because the world's poorest people would starve otherwise. They're still starving.

Remember the stores we're talking about: Walmart, Costco, etc. This is just the latest chapter in the Walmart's corporate strategy (adopted out of necessity by its competitors) to push down prices, almost entirely on the backs of workers - it's own as well as it's suppliers globally.

No, these people are being used and abused so the richest fucking country in the world can pay a little less for it's party nibbles.

This isn't some grandiose macroeconomic problem whose solutions are complex and hard to fathom. If Americans truly didn't want this to happen, they would not shop at Walmart. Ever. For anything.
posted by dry white toast at 5:13 AM on June 11 [4 favorites]


Yeah, except this specific instance of slavery, while awful, is hardly the full extent of the ethical and moral problems posed by our food supply. No matter where you get your prawns, they're either farmed (with all the associated ecological problems and antibiotics issues) or wild-caught (with all the associated overfishing and bycatch problems).

Can we produce enough food to feed everyone? Undoubtedly. Can we produce enough food to feed everyone without factory farming, GMO, incredible amounts of environmental damage, exploited farm workers, and the list goes on, as trade-offs? That seems less certain. Certainly to feed everyone, right away you're looking at eliminating capitalism as the dominant economic paradigm, and we are indeed well into "grandiose macroeconomic problem" territory.

I'm not disputing that this specific slavery is both heinous and relatively simple to shut down. But I think that this was only able to occur in the first place because those of us in the first world have become accustomed to turning a blind eye to the moral trade-offs involved in our food supply. The fact that this particular problem is (or might be, time will tell) a bridge too far for most folks does not mean if we shut this slavery stuff down our food supply will go back to being totally fine. It definitely doesn't mean all you have to do to have a clean conscience about what you eat is "not shop at Walmart".
posted by mstokes650 at 7:52 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


I'm not disputing that this specific slavery is both heinous and relatively simple to shut down. But I think that this was only able to occur in the first place because those of us in the first world have become accustomed to turning a blind eye to the moral trade-offs involved in our food supply. The fact that this particular problem is (or might be, time will tell) a bridge too far for most folks does not mean if we shut this slavery stuff down our food supply will go back to being totally fine. It definitely doesn't mean all you have to do to have a clean conscience about what you eat is "not shop at Walmart".

Perhaps the suggestion was intended to communicate something like this:

If you care about this kind of exploitation, do not shop at WalMart. WalMart's existence depends on encouraging this kind of exploitation in the sourcing of all its products.

With a side of this:

Shopping at WalMart is a clear indication that you don't care about this kind of exploitation. If you cared, you wouldn't shop there. Lots of Americans shop there. Lots of Americans don't care. Until people care, the problem will never even be seen as a problem by the people who can effect change.

Those both seem reasonable interpretations of what dry white toast posted. Your characterization of the suggestion as communicating something like this:

Only WalMart exploits, so if you don't shop there you never have to worry about the ethics of your purchases ever again.

Is maybe a little uncharitable. Particularly when dry white toast was essentially saying, using different words than you did, that this was only able to occur in the first place because those of us in the first world have become accustomed to turning a blind eye to the moral trade-offs involved in our food supply.
posted by jsturgill at 9:03 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


I hate that we let politics dictate what is possible and what is not possible, by the way, without taking a moment to highlight the absurdity of that.

Real constraints are about available energy, resources, and technical understanding. Theoretically we could have constraints of human labor, but realistically speaking, that's not a factor and has not been a factor for as long as I've been alive: automation has left us with massive numbers of human beings with nothing much to do, who would love to work on (safe) boats for a reasonable living. Or teach children for a living, care for the dying, clean buildings, maintain infrastructure, landscape, drive others, harvest crops, craft tools, repair electronics, sort recylcing, play music, anything.

The problem is that our priorities are elsewhere. Like every problem facing human beings today, this kind of exploitation only exists because we let it exist. The mass delusions of our political and economic systems are very real stumbling blocks that do in fact stop us from solving these problems at the moment, but when they make something "impossible" it is "impossible" in a sense very distinct from the definition of impossible used by the rest of the universe.
posted by jsturgill at 9:13 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]


Perhaps the suggestion was intended to communicate something like this:

If you care about this kind of exploitation, do not shop at WalMart.


Perhaps it was! In which case, it was an odd choice to begin by quoting my very general dismay at the overall state of our food production industries, which has to do with a great deal more besides simply this kind of exploitation, and then tell me "This isn't the issue."

I actually already knew that Walmart was a Great And Terrible Evil; that knowledge has no impact on my general despair at the fact that we have not yet found a way to feed everyone that doesn't require significant trade-offs and unpleasantness, leading to blind-eye-turning by most folks that have the luxury of being able to do so, which in turns opens the door for even further awfulness. (I will note that I consider "politics" to be a subset of "human nature", and human nature is in my opinion every bit as "real" a constraint as available energy, resources, and technology.)

Farm shares and the like are wonderful, as other have noted upthread; but they tend to be limited and highly localized, which is great if you live in North Carolina and want fish or live in Nebraska and want veggies (and aren't super-particular about exactly what or exactly when) but not necessarily so great if you live in Phoenix, Arizona, or Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Factory farming on its best days still leaves people wanting to not know how their food is made, and I won't even get onto the subject of the evils of Monsanto. Could we grow fungi-and-locust-slurry enough for everybody, in ways that are humane and ethical enough that most people wouldn't mind knowing about it? Maybe we could, although I have some doubts about the practicality of insect-farming on a grand scale. (But there I think the more immediate hurdle is getting people to want to the fungus-and-locust-slurry in the first place.)

It is a fine and wonderful thing to not shop at Walmart, and I strongly recommend everyone not shop there if at all possible (but I try not to judge folks for doing what they gotta do to get by, and a cornerstone of Walmart's business model is to make sure folks don't have much of another option). But Walmart could completely disappear tomorrow, this kind of slavery could completely disappear tomorrow, the world would be a better place, and yet I would still wish the human race could figure out ways to produce mass quantities of food in ways that were efficient and yet not inevitably totally fucking monstrous*. Though I mean, feel free to show me examples of modernized, large-scale mass-producing food industries that aren't awful in some way or another - be it to the environment, to the animals, to the workers, whatever. There have to be some, right? Even if it's just like, "the star fruit industry" or something.


*and yes I have a terribly unsophisticated palate and lump insect-and-fungi-slurry into "totally fucking monstrous", but there you go. In the coming years of the Great Food Wars, I will surely perish.
posted by mstokes650 at 4:09 PM on June 11


A great little indication of where we're at in modern society...
posted by Jimbob at 4:16 PM on June 11


David Cameron's spokesman said on Wednesday it was up to consumers whether they choose to eat prawns that had been produced through the work of slaves.

The free market provides and hey, if cheap prawns are more important to you than slave free prawns, who is the state to tell you otherwise.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:56 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]


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