When perusing the shrink-wrapped seafood section of your local supermarket, it's common—if not standard—to come across shrimp labeled as "Imported from Thailand," or Indonesia, or Mexico, or Vietnam. This fact hardly seems worrisome at first (hell, what isn't imported when it's out of season?) but it could be indicating more than just your food's region of origin. It might, in fact, be a sign that your scampi is about to taste like slavery.
Myanmar—one of the world's poorest nations, as well one of its biggest exporters of shrimp—still has a major issue with slavery. A 2013 report estimated that some 384,000 people are still living in slavery in Burma, encompassing laborers, sex workers, and those born into debts that they will never be able to repay. It's long been suspected (with intermittent glimmers of evidence) that these modern-day slaves account for a disconcerting number of workers on Burmese seafood farms, but a new investigation by the Associated Press confirms that product from these businesses are making their way to major American suppliers—and into the hands of millions of consumers.
Shrimp farms aren't pretty places. In Asia, they've been a major industry for centuries, but have scaled up massively over the past couple of decades. Food & Water Watch notes: "People with no experience in the field were lured by generous loans and the promise of a quick profit to start their own ponds. While traditional shrimp farms yield up to 445 pounds per acre, these concentrated shrimp operations may produce as much as 89,000 pounds per acre." Squid, snapper, and other fish are also major cash cows for the impoverished nation. And with greater demand for seafood comes greater demand for labor—which is where the slaves that AP encountered come in.
According to investigators, who spoke to more than 40 slaves at seafood farms on the Indonesian island of Benjina, laborers are sometimes forced to drink 20 to 22 hour shifts with no days off. They live on only a few bites of rice or curry each day, and have to wash it down with unclean water. And when they're disobedient or show any signs of being eager to escape, they're locked in rusty cages. Nearly all of the men were from Myanmar, trafficked through Thailand to serve their purpose so that their catch—which they were forbidden to eat themselves—could be exported and the profits could be raked in by their captors.
"Almost all said they were kicked, whipped with toxic stingray tails or otherwise beaten if they complained or tried to rest," says the AP via the New York Daily News. "They were paid little or nothing, as they hauled in heavy nets with squid, shrimp, snapper, grouper and other fish."
The investigation, which spanned more than a year, found that the seafood from these slave-powered farms was nearly impossible to trace methodically, and was frequently ending up on store shelves and in freezers at some of the US's biggest retailers, distributors, and supermarket chains: Kroger, Albertson's, Safeway, Wal-Mart, Sysco.
Additionally, it appeared in plenty of places where it wouldn't even be stuck with a label of origin—fine dining establishments, sushi restaurants, and even canned pet foods.
Because this slave-caught seafood mixes with other fish and crustaceans while being processed in Thailand, keeping it out of the American food supply isn't as simple as boycotting farms known to be violating basic human rights. Once they've been processed in Thailand, they might as well be from any other fishery in the area, and swiftly make their way to North America, Europe, and other parts of Asia
The aforementioned corporations named in being unknown sellers of the seafood issued statements after being contacted by the AP, asserting their dedication to eradicating forced labor in their own supply chains and penalizing the subcontractors who have been upholding these cruel conditions.
A runaway slave named Hlaing Min told the reporters, "If Americans and Europeans are eating this fish, they should remember us. There must be a mountain of bones under the sea," he said. "The bones of the people could be an island, it's that many."