Your Shrimp Dinner Was Probably Peeled By Slaves In Thailand

An Associated Press investigation exposes the human atrocities that feed insatiable demand for America’s favorite seafood.

Your Shrimp Dinner Was Probably Peeled By Slaves In Thailand
[Top Photo: Kongsak via Shutterstock]

If you’ve bought shrimp at Walmart, Kroger, or Whole Foods, or dined out on them at restaurants like Red Lobster and Olive Garden or even something a little higher-end, you may have unwittingly been part of a supply chain that exploits workers in the worst possible way. According to a major Associated Press investigation, these outlets have all bought seafood from Thai factories where slavery is common.

Mocha.VP via Shutterstock

AP reporters found appalling conditions in plants that peel, devein, and clean shrimp. Workers are often shipped in illegally from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, told they owe “brokers” huge sums, then paid a pittance–ensuring they cannot leave. In some cases, workers have even been locked inside and forced to work with no days off and little sleep.

Here is one scene from the story:

The conditions they described inside were horrific: 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.

The trade is driven by our insatiable desire for cheap seafood. Americans eat 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp each year, or about four pounds per person. No longer a luxury, we now eat shrimp regularly, with Thailand dominating the market and sending half its catch to the U.S. The result is that it’s difficult to avoid shrimp that hasn’t passed through supply chains “tainted with forced labor.” AP reporters found Thai shrimp products in supermarkets in all 50 states.

More from the story:

U.S. customs records linked the exported shrimp to more than 40 U.S. brands, including popular names such as Sea Best, Waterfront Bistro and Aqua Star. The AP found shrimp products with the same labels in more than 150 stores across America – from Honolulu to New York City to a tiny West Virginia town of 179 people. The grocery store chains have tens of thousands of U.S. outlets where millions of Americans shop.

The Thai government claims to have cracked down on human trafficking and one of the factories featured in the story has now been closed. But the AP says no managers have been arrested for their crimes, though the migrant workers have been punished for entering Thailand illegally. The piece: “Back at the shed where their nightmare began, a worker reached by phone pleaded for help as trucks loaded with slave-peeled shrimp continued to roll out.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.