Earlier this year, the Associated Press conducted a startling undercover investigation which found that seafood caught by slaves in Myanmar was reaching the shelves of American supermarkets. But now, AP says that a further investigation has revealed that global restaurants and stores—including supposedly conscientious retailers like Whole Foods—are also selling shrimp peeled by slaves.
The shrimp has been traced to processing factories in Thailand. These factories—really no more than sheds—are horrific places where children and adults work 16-hour days in hellish conditions with no chance of escape. And Whole Foods is hardly alone; the slave-peeled shrimp has been found in retail outlets and restaurants in all 50 states, according to the report. We're talking about Walmart, Kroger, Dollar General, Petco (yup, the shrimp made its way into pet food), Red Lobster, and Olive Garden. Not to mention Safeway, Piggly Wiggly, and Albertsons. And that Chicken of the Sea canned shrimp you recently bought? It has been traced to that, too.
We are not using the word "slave" lightly here. The investigation revealed that these workers are beaten, cursed at, addressed not by name but by number, threatened, denied health care, starved—you get the idea. Horrific doesn't even begin to describe the situation.
The journalists followed workers at the Gig Peeling Factory (now closed), a shrimp-peeling shed located an hour north of Bangkok, and described it as follows: "Inside the large warehouse, toilets overflowed with feces, and the putrid smell of raw sewage wafted from an open gutter just outside the work area. Young children ran barefoot through suffocating dorm rooms. Entire families labored side-by-side at rows of stainless steel counters piled high with tubs of shrimp."
If you've ever peeled shrimp, you know it's not fun. But doing it for 16 hours a day in squalid conditions is another thing entirely. Escaping is all the workers can think about, but many were literally sold to the Gig shed and can't buy their way to freedom, the report says.
Workers' salaries in these sheds are tied to how many shrimp they can peel in an hour. One worker, Tin Nyo Win, and his wife told AP that they peeled about 175 pounds of shrimp for only $4 a day, all while their manager slapped and cursed at them. According to the report, at the Gig peeling facility, "17 children peeled alongside adults, sometimes crying, at stations where paint chipped off the walls and slick floors were eaten away by briny water." Workers wake at 2 AM to start work; children wake at 3 AM. Workers said they were locked inside the factory and those who tried to escape were tracked down and beaten.
According to AP: "A woman eight months pregnant miscarried on the shed floor and was forced to keep peeling for four days while hemorrhaging. An unconscious toddler was refused medical care after falling about 12 feet onto a concrete floor. Another pregnant woman escaped only to be tracked down, yanked into a car by her hair, and handcuffed to a fellow worker at the factory."
We reached out to Whole Foods to get their side of the story. Their representative, McKinzey Crossland, told us that the company has "zero tolerance for human rights abuses." As a result of the investigation, she said Whole Foods has now "investigated our own supply chain—going beyond our existing third-party audits of processing facilities by conducting our own on-site inspections of Thai Union facilities." According to that audit, Whole Foods says, "We are confident that Thai Union shrimp supplied to Whole Foods Market did not come from an illicit processing facility, nor do we purchase any shrimp from peeling shed facilities. We are also encouraged by Thai Union's decision to swiftly bring all shrimp processing in-house in an effort to ensure transparency and full oversight of their shrimp processing, and we urge the government of Thailand to regulate and enforce issues of labor and human rights within their country."
Walmart also responded to our inquiry by saying, "We are aware of the Associated Press story, and we were horrified by the conditions and treatment of workers the reporters uncovered … The ethical recruitment and treatment of workers in the industry as a whole is extremely important to us." The company's representative, Marilee McInnis, says that they are "actively engaged in working with NGOs, private sector companies, suppliers and government to find solutions."
Given the extent of the problem as reported by AP, let's hope that these companies' responses are just the beginning of a correction to a systemic problem that needs our attention, now. As one worker in Thailand, whose name was withheld to protect his safety, put it: "Sometimes when we were working, the tears would run down our cheeks because it was so tiring we couldn't bear it. We were crying, but we kept peeling shrimp. We couldn't rest … I think people are guilty if they eat the shrimp that we peeled like slaves."