The True Cost of eating your prawns

This article makes me think twice about eating prawns in singapore, since most of our supply comes from Thailand and Indonesia.

Vol.4 Week 18 30/04/2008
Labour standards in Asia's shrimp industry
by Richard Welford rwelford@csr-

Workers in Asia's shrimp industry suffer regular abuse and often live in what amounts to virtual slavery, according to a report by the Solidarity Center, a human-rights organization based in the USA. The 40-page report says that sexual and physical abuse, trafficking, debt bondage, child labour and unsafe working conditions are common in the industry, citing particularly bad examples in both Thailand's and Bangladesh's shrimp processing factories.

The report, "The Degradation of Work: The True Cost of Shrimp," is based on various sources of evidence including the police but it also contains information from interviews with workers in both Thailand and Bangladesh.

The report cites on example of workers in a Thai factory who told police who raided the establishment that if they made a mistake on the shrimp peeling line, asked for sick leave, or tried to escape, they could expect to be beaten, sexually abused, or publicly tortured. Moreover, the plant, Ranya Paew, was said to be more like a fortress than a factory, with 16-foot-high barbed-wire topped walls, armed guards, and an extensive internal closed-circuit television system, said the report based on evidence from the Thai police.

"Behind the walls, the police found a scene that one report described as 'little short of medieval,' with hundreds of workers literally trapped inside the compound, living in squalid conditions, forced to work long hours, and subjected to physical, emotional, and sexual intimidation and abuse. Workers who angered the employer were often 'put to shame' in front of others by having their hair cut or shaved in patches. Women and girls were stripped naked and publicly beaten as a form of discipline."

The report says the owner of the factory, who was charged with some offenses, received little in the way of punishment.

"Despite widespread worker rights abuses, including child labour and human trafficking, the owner was charged only with employing children under 15 and failing to provide holidays and time off. Although these charges are serious, they were treated as first-time labour code violations. The owner initially only paid a fine of about $2,100 and has returned to work."

The Solidarity Center also reports on workers at another factory owned by a major Thai shrimp processing company, alleging hazardous working conditions as well as an intimidating and discriminatory work environment. Workers complained of forced overtime and non-payment of wages if production quotas were missed. They also claimed regular exposure to harsh chemicals, lack of access to first aid or health care and poor air and drinking water quality.

They also had unexplained deductions from their pay and worked without a written contract, the report says and that native Thais and migrant workers were segregated by the use of colour-coded uniforms.

In Bangladesh one worker is quoted as saying "I make US$30 a month but the room in Chittagong, including electricity comes to US$23 a month. This means I have US$7 to spend on food, clothes and anything else."

Much of in the industry is made up of migrant workers. The report tells the story of three female workers picked up by a broker and taken to the Thai-Burma border, where they were joined by other Burmese migrants. They walked for three days until they found transportation to Bangkok. The broker took them to the Ranya Paew seafood processing factory where the broker was paid US$300 for each one of them. They were told that this would be deducted from their pay. They work 18-hour shifts.

The Solidarity Center tracked shrimp from factories it criticized directly to some of America's best-known retailers and restaurants, though it did not allege wrongdoing on the part of the U.S. companies. I don't doubt that we can find the shrimps elsewhere in this region too.

The Solidarity Center says that its report is not intended to overwhelm readers with depressing stories of abuse (although there are many). It wants to encourage companies (and governments) along the shrimp supply chain to take positive action. The real cost of this inexpensive seafood is represented by the experiences of the workers illustrated in the report.

In the last 30 years the shrimp industry has been revolutionized through an unprecedented increase in efficient production, resulting in huge profits for producers. But there is still a need for a significant amount of hand processing and the workers doing the processing are often subject to abuse, misery and damaged lives, says the report.

Processing companies receive raw shrimp from farms or fishing boats and prepare and move the processed shrimp along the supply chain. Most processing companies operate in a highly fragmented market. Secondary processing plants convert prepared shrimp into more marketable products through cooking, packaging and other preparations. Processing plants are labour intensive and work to tight deadlines.

But the rapid expansion of the processing industry has created a regulatory vacuum, says the report, where there are major failings in labour standards, environmental protection and, worryingly, food safety.

As for any law enforcement, the report quotes one worker as saying "the inspectors come, they have to come at least once a year. But they always inform the management first. The management then arranges everything: they change the shifts and only put people on who agree with them. They prepare a separate salary sheet. The inspectors know the management. They are all friends."

Correcting the abuse of labour in this industry is going to be tough. Migrant workers, bonded labourers and children can all be found in the processing factories. Yet whatever talks about sweatshops in the shrimp industry in the way that we have seen in apparel and footwear factories. Well, perhaps now we have this report, we should starting asking some tough questions about what we eat as well as what we wear!

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