Last month, it was reported that major players in the supermarket game were to meet in Thailand to tackle the problem of slavery in the shrimp production industry in Southeast Asia. The abhorrent conditions of human trafficking and involuntary servitude are said to occur in the supply chains of Charoen Pokphand Foods, a Thailand-based shrimp supplier to global retailers, with annual sales of $33 billion. While such a risk has been identified for years in private counsels from this corner, it has now made a big splash on the pages of one of the world’s most-read newspapers. Businesses obtaining seafood products from the Pacific Rim should take renewed stock of their own due diligence and internal investigations efforts as regards identifying slavery and human trafficking among participants in their supply chains, if any.
On July 30, 2014, The Guardian reported that U.S. and British supermarket groups were in Thailand that same week to create a task force to tackle human trafficking and forced labor in the shrimp feed industry. The three-day meeting was hosted by CP Foods, the world’s largest prawn farmer, which The Guardian had earlier found to be buying fishmeal from suppliers that own, operate or buy from boats manned with slave labor. Among U.S. retailers, Whole Foods had already cancelled contracts with CP Foods, while Costco US was expected to attend the talks before deciding how to proceed. International catering and food-service giant Sodexo was also likely to be there.
According to the same article, the aim of the meeting was to agree on the terms of an industry action group, which will work with CP Foods to establish a global benchmark in sustainable shrimp-feed production. It will also help the Thai government create a strategy to halt human trafficking and slave labor in the seafood supply chain. To date, the results of that meeting and what steps toward achieving these goals have been taken are unknown.
The late-July report of this meeting by The Guardian was preceded by an earlier story on June 10, 2014, revealing the findings of its own investigation of the shrimp industry in Thailand. It found that that:
“ . . . large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand are integral to the production of prawns (commonly called shrimp in the US) sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.
The investigation found that the world’s largest prawn farmer [CP Foods] buys fishmeal, which it feeds to its farmed prawns, from some suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned with slaves.
Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying CP Foods and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them.
Fifteen migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia also told how they had been enslaved. They said they had paid brokers to help them find work in Thailand in factories or on building sites. But they had been sold instead to boat captains, sometimes for as little as £250.
‘I thought I was going to die,’ said Vuthy, a former monk from Cambodia who was sold from captain to captain. ‘They kept me chained up, they didn’t care about me or give me any food … They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings.’
Another trafficking victim said he had seen as many as 20 fellow slaves killed in front of him, one of whom was tied, limb by limb, to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea.
‘We’d get beaten even if we worked hard,’ said another. ‘All the Burmese, [even] on all the other boats, were trafficked. There were so many of us [slaves] it would be impossible to count them all.’
CP Foods – a company with an annual turnover of $33bn (£20bn) that brands itself as ‘the kitchen of the world’ – sells its own-brand prawn feed to other farms, and supplies international supermarkets, as well as food manufacturers and food retailers, with frozen or cooked prawns and ready-made meals. It also sells raw prawn materials for food distributors.
In addition to Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco, the Guardian has identified Aldi, Morrison’s, the Co-operative and Iceland as customers of CP Foods. They all sell frozen or cooked prawns, or ready meals such as prawn stir fry, supplied by CP Foods and its subsidiaries. CP Foods admits that slave labour is part of its supply chain.
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The supply chain works in this way: Slave ships plying international waters off Thailand scoop up huge quantities of ‘trash fish’, infant or inedible fish. The Guardian traced this fish on landing to factories where it is ground down into fishmeal for onward sale to CP Foods. The company uses this fishmeal to feed its farmed prawns, which it then ships to international customers.”
In light of this investigation, not only should U.S. and supermarket chains elsewhere look to re-tool due diligence and internal investigations into their seafood supply chain, but so too should the restaurant industry. This is particularly true for the casual dining chains that dominate much of the U.S. market. One would have to think that not just every bag of bulk shrimp at Costco, but every Fillet-o-Fish from McDonald’s, runs the risk of having been caught, processed, flash-frozen, and/or shipped by workers held in involuntary servitude, if any of those functions occur in Southeast Asia. The cost of doing a deep dive into those suppliers to make sure that is not the case pales in comparison to the costs of not doing so.