Burmese slaves in the global fish trade
March 25, 2015 6:22 AM   Subscribe

"If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us," said Hlaing Min, 30, a runaway slave from Benjina. "There must be a mountain of bones under the sea. ... The bones of the people could be an island, it's that many."

Are slaves catching the fish you buy? A year-long AP investigation into the use of slaves to catch fish that end up in supply chains going to Kroger, Wal-Mart and Sysco, the U.S.' biggest food distributor.
posted by mediareport (21 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
My daughters don't like fish, so as it happens we don't buy any from Kroger. But our local Kroger stores have posters at the entrance and in the seafood section claiming that the store buys from sustainable stocks; its individual packages of fish are labeled as farmed or wild caught. I'd imagine that consumer preference drives these marketing choices, so hopefully we'll soon see "slavery free" stickers as well.
posted by Gelatin at 6:44 AM on March 25, 2015


What happens is that slavery (and near-slavery - it sounds as though the other men on the trawlers are as close to slaves as makes no difference, if they get locked up for saying that they want to leave) is used in the periphery to keep prices down in the metropole. That is, food prices have to be low in the center so that voters (and other "legitimate" political actors, and political actors with any kind of power) have less incentive to change the system and profits remain high at the same time. If labor at the periphery is freer and makes more money, either profits would have to fall or food prices would have to rise and there would be more rebellion at the center.

Of course, what we're seeing now in the metropole is the fruit of sustained attempts to rob ordinary people of any kind of financial and political power, so in theory prices can rise (or expense structures can change - ie, need to take on more debt just to survive) and people can still be horribly exploited at the periphery.

The point is, I think that for slavery and near-slavery to end at the periphery, the center has to be reconstituted. I don't think it's just a matter of campaigning for "slavery-free" fish - not that this is worthless; obviously you're better off being hyper-exploited but able to go home than being hyper-exploited and beaten in a cage - but slavery and near-slavery are going to persist in new forms as long as the center is frantically unequal and undemocratic.
posted by Frowner at 6:57 AM on March 25, 2015 [18 favorites]


Previously.
I'd imagine that consumer preference drives these marketing choices, so hopefully we'll soon see "slavery free" stickers as well.


What happens though, is that whatever company Krogers contracts with will just subcontract out the slavery. Krogers will do it's audit, find no slaves employed there, and the subcontractors will continue business as usual.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:13 AM on March 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


Even if you're buying farmed fish, there's a chance the food fed to the fish is made from fishmeal produced by slavery. Farmed prawns from Thailand, as far as I am aware, cannot be guaranteed slavery-free. (Or: what Pogo linked to).
posted by Leon at 7:15 AM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


What happens is that slavery ... is used in the periphery to keep prices down in the metropole.

Exploitation of labor is pretty much the one way that you could increase your margins in a commodity business like that -- almost everything else has fixed costs (eg fuel, boats, nets), and prices are set by the buyers. Looking at it as a conspiracy to keep prices low misses the point by a large margin, because it is about extracting profits using that exploited labor as the lynchpin.

I am glad to see labor abuses getting some attention in fields outside of sex trafficking, since that is where the vast majority of cases are. I doubt that there are very many supply chains that don't include labor exploitation, and when prices are lower than seems reasonable you can almost guarantee it.

The environmental argument for "buying local" strikes me as tenuous at best (and often directly wrong), but the argument for sourcing local in order to have control working conditions is much stronger. Long and disconnected supply chains are where you can easily hide abuses and give full deniability to the end retailer.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:16 AM on March 25, 2015 [18 favorites]


It's not a "conspiracy" in the sense that evil cabals meet; it's a "conspiracy" in that it's a function of capitalism that works consistently in certain ways. Prices have to be affordable at the center because people at the center can vote for the powers at the center, or, failing that, riot. Capitalism isn't a conspiracy, but it works like a conspiracy.

Although I bet - given the various food riots elsewhere in recent years - that if you could really sit in at the smarter sort of conservative/corporate-friendly think tank, people would be talking about commodity prices and stability, and probably commodity prices, stability and global warming. I mean, this has been a central preoccupation of empires for ever; it's something that the Chinese government and the Mexican government worry about in great detail to my certain knowledge and frankly this country is also a large, unequal industrial power. I just cannot believe that if I am thinking "hm, the ability to feed people cheaply is a big part of keeping the peace in urban areas", no one else is thinking it.
posted by Frowner at 7:24 AM on March 25, 2015 [11 favorites]


(Consider food stamps, actually - food stamps are a politically acceptable way to feed people "cheaply" (although getting more and more contentious as the right gets stronger) and we certainly don't have food stamps because the government is full of nice, caring people who just want grandma to eat something besides cat food; we have food stamps because a society where the working class is starving is an unstable society.
posted by Frowner at 7:26 AM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


The environmental argument for "buying local" strikes me as tenuous at best (and often directly wrong),

Right - I think the argument is that when you buy local, you can have an easier time vetting the production. Not that it will mean that whatever it is you're buying is ecologically or ethically sound.
posted by entropone at 7:52 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


And curiously, it is near impossible in the US to afford local, sustainable food on food stamps.

In Seattle, one season a donor tried a $2 farmer's market for $1 SNAP program. Limit was $30/week, if I recall correctly. That would buy 2 lbs of fruit, 2 bunches of organic greens and 8oz of cheese. And leave $6 for food for a single adult for the rest of the week's conventional groceries. Hahahaha.
posted by Dreidl at 8:12 AM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


It is also unclear that refusing to buy imported seafood from Asia would tend to reduce slavery. It seems to me that the underlying driver of these abusive labor practices is the unequal distribution of weath and commerce and shunning one of the few products produced by Burma isn't calculated to improve their share of the world's resources. Given that the scheme in questions requires the cooperation of easily bribable Thai business partners, I guess we could try to figure out ways to apply pressure on Thailand to reform their business practices, but I'm not terribly optimistic about that one either.
posted by Lame_username at 8:19 AM on March 25, 2015


hopefully we'll soon see "slavery free" stickers as well.

I dunno. I had kind of hoped to live in a world where I could buy shrimp without having to think about the prospect of human trafficking. A world where this article would be enough to bring the full weight of the justice system crashing down on any vice president who had even the barest hint that he was trading cheap seafood for human misery.

I guess I'll have to settle for stickers.
posted by Mayor West at 8:56 AM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


I guess I'll have to settle for stickers.

Or stop eating imported shrimp. I don't think any decisions I make with regard to my seafood purchases will have a measurable impact, but it's a thing I can do. And I can afford to do so, without any real financial pain.
posted by suelac at 9:01 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Exploitation of labor is pretty much the one way that you could increase your margins in a commodity business like that

Which is yet another reminder that Marx's critique of capital from way back in the late 19th Century remains pretty well spot on.
posted by Gelatin at 9:09 AM on March 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Well this is a terrible thing, obviously. And I'm sure it happens in more places than Burma. However, Burmese ratings are definitely not common in the maritime world. Thailand may be number seven or eight in seafood exports, globally, but the PRC is is a larger producer than the next seven or eight nations anyway, last time I looked.

Not trying to say this is not a problem - obviously it's horrible - but it's not as pervasive as the article would lead one to believe. There are FAR more serious problems, economically, environmentally and in term of human rights going on in the fishing industry.
posted by digitalprimate at 9:24 AM on March 25, 2015


I was really hoping "Are slaves catching the fish you buy?" wasn't an exception to Betteridge's Law.
posted by Cookiebastard at 9:32 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


What happens is that slavery (and near-slavery - it sounds as though the other men on the trawlers are as close to slaves as makes no difference, if they get locked up for saying that they want to leave) is used in the periphery to keep prices down in the metropole. That is, food prices have to be low in the center so that voters (and other "legitimate" political actors, and political actors with any kind of power) have less incentive to change the system and profits remain high at the same time. If labor at the periphery is freer and makes more money, either profits would have to fall or food prices would have to rise and there would be more rebellion at the center.

This is also the background system in The Hunger Games.
posted by srboisvert at 10:08 AM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Remember guys, if it's from Alaska, you can rest assured that it is ethically caught and wild. And the way the Alaska system is set up, it favors a wide variety in the size of operations, so, guys fishing on a small scale are just as viable as the big guys. AND the entire industry is carefully managed to avoid overfishing. I'm out! *crawls back up north*
posted by Foam Pants at 11:42 AM on March 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


hopefully we'll soon see "slavery free" stickers as well

Neoliberalism in a nutshell! It's all about choice: you can choose to spend more for the Certified Slavery-Free Seal of Ethical Consumption™ if you personally want to, and from there we can just let the invisible hand sort out the rest.
posted by RogerB at 12:15 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]




Fair trade implies slavery-free. I have started seeing fair trade labels for produce grown in the USA. Finally.
posted by aniola at 8:37 PM on March 25, 2015


Yet another reason not to eat seafood.
posted by limeonaire at 3:57 PM on March 26, 2015


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