Peel and Defeat: A Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Exposes Widespread Trafficking in Thai Shrimp Factories

“There is more oversight in seafood to protect dolphins than there is to protect humans.” -Martha Mendoza

On a recent “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit, the entertainment, social networking, and news website, Martha Mendoza discussed a series of investigative reports on human trafficking in the shrimp industry, which she coauthored. She expressed frustration, saying perpetrators get away with the crime because of the lack of accountability, little demand from consumers for slavery-free supply chains, and insufficient government and industry oversight. Slave-produced shrimp has been traced to restaurant suppliers and grocery store chains in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

The latest article in her series, Global Supermarkets Selling Shrimp Peeled by Slaves, focuses on a land-based component of Thailand’s seven billion dollar seafood export industry. In Samut Sakhon, a town less than 30 miles from Bangkok, thousands of men, women, and children work 16 hour days, hands immersed in icy water, peeling endless buckets of shrimp for seafood distributors.

Lured by the promise of decent jobs and a new start, many come from nearby countries only to be tricked into debt-bondage by labor brokers and factory overseers. Often the “debts,” intentionally excessive to control victims, are so high that workers never have a positive net income. Receiving little to no pay, unable to leave, and often brutalized, they become slaves, not employees—cogs in a factory, more asset than human beings.

Human trafficking is endemic in the region’s fishing industry. One reason it persists is that it is mostly a remote and literally floating criminal enterprise. Stationary factories like those in Samut Sakhon are the exception. Compounding the problem, victims rarely speak out against their former captors, and those who do face great personal risk.

Survivors struggle to readapt to society after being rescued; as Mendoza notes, half suffer from depression, and 40 percent suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Tragically, for the countless hours spent amassing profits for their enslavers and enduring inhuman working conditions, the few that escape walk away penniless.

Many legitimate businesses are unaware of the trafficked labor in their supply chains, but ignorance can no longer be an excuse for inaction, thanks to the work of Mendoza and her team. These institutions need to rid their supply chains of forced labor, establish best practices, and work with the U.S. government to make their efforts sustainable. Strong enforcement of forced labor laws and regulations will ensure that responsible businesses are able to operate on a level playing field in the global market.

For more information on Human Rights First’s approach to bankrupting slavery, read our blueprint, How to Dismantle the Business of Human Trafficking.

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Published on December 17, 2015

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