Sweatshop shrimp

Sweatshop shrimp

25 April 2008

A slick 40-page report financed by US labour unions on Thursday alleges slave-labour conditions in the Thai shrimp export industry – with “common” sexual and physical abuse, debt bondage, child labour and unsafe working conditions.

The report was issued by the Solidarity Center, which claims to be an activist group “promoting worker rights worldwide.” In fact it is funded by and serves as a direct arm of the AFL-CIO, the biggest US labour group.

It attacks the shrimp export industries of both Thailand and Bangladesh. Thailand is the world’s largest shrimp exporter, and has been the focus of strong campaigns by US unions seeking to protect the tiny American shrimp industry.

Meant to rouse public opinion in the United States, the report names some of the biggest US food markets for receiving and selling shrimp from what it calls “plants with substandard labour practices” in Thailand.

They include Wal-Mart, the biggest US market chain. On Thursday, the report managed to win a pledge from Wal-Mart to investigate the claims of slave-like conditions in Thai factories.

“We hold our shrimp suppliers to the highest safety and quality standards,” Wal-Mart spokesman Deisha Galberth told the CNN cable-TV network, “including maintaining processing plants and packaging facilities that meet or exceed Best Aquaculture Practices standards set by the Global Aquaculture Alliance.”

The spokesman said no one at Wal-Mart had even seen the report before acting.

“Although we have not seen the Solidarity Center’s report, we are working with our suppliers to investigate the allegations… We’re not aware of any issues in our supply chain,” the company statement said.

Other major food market operators including Costco, Giant, IGA, Tops Markets (USA) and Trader Joe’s did not immediately respond to the issue.

The report said that “collecting accurate information in Bangladesh and Thailand is challenging,” but did not let that inhibit a list of conditions designed to show the industry in the worst conditions.

Interviews with workers showed arduous conditions including “long hours, low pay, abusive employers, informal work, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, and the vulnerability of migrant workers.”

The True Cost of Shrimp is available on the Internet in PDF format.

Last year, Thailand exported about 200,000 tonnes of shrimp worth nearly $1.3 billion to the United States, almost three times more than the nearest competitor, China.

In addition to alleged worker abuse, the report included a long litany of other problems it claimed were caused by the Thai shrimp industry: overuse of antibiotics, use of pesticides, and the death of sea turtles because of deep-sea trawling.

The AFL-CIO union report called enforcement of labour standards in Thailand “a cruel joke,” but made no specific recommendations on how to clean up what it said was a dirty industry, beyond enforcing standards set by the US-based NGO, Aquaculture Certification Council.

Source: Bangkok Post