How Seafood Sustains Modern Slavery

“Our products come fresh from the hands of overworked, malnourished slaves.” No one would ever want to buy food from somewhere with that statement on its label. The sad truth, though, is that thousands of consumers worldwide unknowingly finance a Burmese slave trade just by buying seafood.

Shrimp pastaAccording to a new report by the Associated Press, hundreds if not thousands of Burmese workers have been trafficked through Thailand to fish in the waters around the island of Benjina, Indonesia. On the boats, slaves subsist on minimal portions of curried rice and unsanitary water, work at least 20 hours a day for little to no pay, and are subject to physical punishment if they complain or try to rest*. Their catch is sent back to Thailand for commercial sale, whence it is seamlessly mixed with legally-caught seafood and distributed across Asia as well as to Europe and the USA. Since roughly one-fifth of Thailand’s $7 billion annual seafood exports are to the US (importing $1.5 billion worth in 2013-14, according to NOAA), slave-sourced seafood can work its way into any stage of the American food supply. The untraceable, ‘tainted’ fish may be sold as-is in grocery stores, incorporated into processed and pre-packaged foods, or even served in high-class restaurants.

The governments of Thailand and Indonesia are, of course, aware of the problem and working against it. Thailand is in the process of creating a national registry of illegal migrant workers, while Indonesia has temporarily prohibited most fishing as it tries to rid its waters of foreign poachers. Meanwhile, the US Department of State blacklisted Thailand for human trafficking violations in 2014, but the wrist-slap does not seem to have had any effect. The AP also asked for comments from a few major food companies, who declared that “they were taking steps to prevent forced labor, such as working with human rights groups to hold subcontractors accountable.” However, some smaller seafood distributors commented on how difficult it is for their companies to guarantee the cleanliness of their supply when it comes from hundreds of thousands of miles away.

Fish marketIf this exposé proves one thing, it is the importance of knowing where you get your food. The picturesque idea of personally knowing the farmer who grows your vegetables and raises your meat is pretty idealistic, but by buying domestically- if not regionally-sourced goods, you can at least guarantee that slaves weren’t involved in providing your dinner. Although the economics and ecological soundness of ‘going local,’ undoubtedly one of the biggest food trends of the decade, have been rightfully questioned, this is one regard in which the farmers’ market is definitely a better bet than the grocery store. Hopefully, the combination of government intervention and consumer pressure – i.e. buying more local seafood – will bring an end to this disturbing problem.

Ignorance is bliss, but staying informed makes change possible.


*Read the full AP article for more details about the slaves’ conditions and responses from various corporations that have been linked to the slavery