A woman has filed a class action lawsuit against Costco that claims the retail giant's most popular seafood product—shrimp—was caught by slaves in Southeast Asia.
The 54-page complaint filed in federal court Wednesday by plaintiff Monica Sud relies heavily on information reported in by the Guardian last year and the Associated Press this past March in the two outlets' blockbuster stories about the Thai fishing industry. Sud claims that Californians who bought shrimp from Costco in the past four years are owed refunds because the store did not disclose the source of the product.
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In 2014, the Guardian revealed that men are "bought and sold like animals and held against their will" to catch shrimp that end up in Walmart, Costco, Carrefour, and Tesco. These men would pay brokers to help them find work but would instead be sold to boat captains. Once on a ship, they worked 20-hour days, endured regular beatings, and sometimes died in execution-style killings.
The Associated Press talked to slaves—mostly from Burma, one of the world's poorest countries—being held in the Indonesian island village of Benjina. The journalists there eventually followed the fish they caught to places like Walmart and reported how it ended up in products like the cat food Fancy Feast.
"California consumers are unknowingly supporting slave labor," co-lead attorney Niall McCarthy said in a statement. "The level of abuse is unspeakable. The truth needs to be exposed so consumers can make informed decisions."
According to the complaint, the shrimp at Costco is labelled as "Product of Thailand," which is unsurprising. After all, the country exported $7.3 billion of seafood in 2011, according to the U.S Department of Fisheries, which makes it the third-biggest producer of that product in the world. Sud is seeking an injunction that would require Costco to either label the shrimp as a product of slave labor or to stop selling it.
"Plaintiff and other California consumers care about the origin of the products they purchase and the conditions under which the products are farmed, harvested or manufactured," her complaint reads. "Consumers do not expect the products that they purchase to be derived from, manufactured or otherwise created or made available through the use of slavery, human trafficking or other illegal labor practices."
On its website, Costco says it prohibits human rights abuses in its supply chain: "Practices such as human trafficking, physical abuse of workers, restricting workers' freedom of movement, confiscation of passports and worker documentation, unsafe work environments, failure to pay adequate wages, excessive and/or forced overtime, illegal child labor, and many other aspects of worker welfare are addressed by [a Code of Conduct,]" Costco says in a statement there.
"Allegations concerning issues in the Thai seafood industry have been well publicized for over one year," a representative for the store told VICE in an emailed statement. "Costco Wholesale has been working with and will continue to work with various stakeholders (including the Thai government, other retailers, and Thai industry) to address the issues that have surfaced. In the meantime, all of our customers know that if they are dissatisfied with any purchase from Costco Wholesale they can return the item for a full refund."
This is the first class action suit against any of the retailers that sold seafood allegedly caught by slaves. It's unclear who Monica Sud is, or why she's taking the lead in forcing Costco into action. There's no listed contact information for her on the complaint, and her counsel did not immediately return request for comment.
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