A Major Supplier of U.S. Seafood Is Among the Worst Countries for Modern Slavery

For two years running, the State Department has listed Thailand as one of the worst countries for slave labor—but it doesn’t receive the same sanctions as other nations on the list.

Migrant laborers sort fish on a Thai fishing boat in Sattahip, Chonburi province. (Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/Getty Images)

Jul 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Between 80,000 and 120,000 people are held in prison camps across North Korea. Often without trial, conviction, sentencing, or any trappings of justice, men, women, and children are subjected to endless terms in these prisons, where they endure hard labor working in mines or on farms. “Prisoners are subjected to unhygienic living conditions, beatings, a lack of medical care, and insufficient food,” according to the State Department’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, released Monday. “Many do not survive. Furnaces and mass graves are used to dispose of the bodies of those who die in these camps.”

Such conditions have landed North Korea and 22 other countries in the annual report’s Tier 3—an infamous club of countries that either actively engage in slavery practices or allow indentured servitude to flourish. In addition to North Korea, Tier 3 countries include Syria, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. These are not our friends, geopolitically speaking, and inclusion on the list is nearly always paired with economic sanctions.

The exception is Thailand, a Tier 3 violator for the second year running, which enjoys good relations with the United States. It’s also a sizable trading partner and a major source of U.S. seafood imports. The fishing industry that provides the U.S. with cheap shrimp and tuna is the driver of Thailand’s inclusion on the State Department’s blacklist of countries that allow modern slavery to persist.

“While forced labor exists throughout the world, nowhere is the problem more pronounced than here in the South China Sea, especially in the Thai fishing fleet, which faces an annual shortage of about 50,000 mariners, based on United Nations estimates,” The New York Times reported Monday in a story about slave labor in the fishing industry. “The shortfall is primarily filled by using migrants, mostly from Cambodia and Myanmar.”

In 2013, the U.S. imported $1.1 billion worth of tuna and shrimp from Thailand, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative. Although not a party to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement being negotiated by the United States and 10 other Pacific Rim nations, Thailand has expressed a strong interest in joining the pact, which would likely result in an increase in seafood imports from the country.

Human rights abuses are chief among the concerns related to slave labor in the fishing industry, but the deplorable labor practices are often associated with what’s called illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, known among watchdogs as IUU. The Thai “ghost ships” that use slave labor are fairly described as pirate operations—and they are as unbeholden to labor law as they are to catch quotas. The Thai waters the boats operate in are some of the most overfished in the world, according to an Environmental Justice Foundation report. Fishing vessels are catching just 14 percent of what they did in the mid-1960s, which is strongly suggestive of an overexploited marine ecosystem. According to a 2014 study published in the journal Marine Policy, as much as a third of wild-caught U.S. seafood imports come from IUU fisheries.

Despite Thailand’s Tier 3 ranking, increased media coverage of slavery in the seafood industry, congressional hearings, a presidential task force on IUU fishing, and a long-standing federal law that makes it illegal to sell products in the United States that are tied to slavery, imports of Thai seafood continue. A 2015 investigation conducted by The Associated Press found that seafood caught with slave labor was being sold by Walmart, Sysco, and Kroger and used in pet food by the likes of Meow Mix and Iams.

The Thai government, for its part, expects to get another pass on economic sanctions tied to labor abuses.

“I don’t think there will be sanctions, because Thailand has done things according to the rule of law, so we can rest easy,” Thai Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said in a press conference ahead of the report’s release. “Thailand has done its most. Even if we stay on Tier 3, we have done our best.”

Those who have managed to escape Thai slavery would beg to differ.

Hlaing Min, a 32-year-old from Myanmar who was rescued from a slave ship in April, told the AP the following after learning about a congressional hearing on slavery in the Thai seafood industry:

“I want to say to the congressmen that if I were to mention about all the human skulls and bones from the fishermen who died, the sea would be full of Burmese bones. On behalf of all the fishermen here, I request to the congressmen that the U.S. stop buying all fish from Thailand. If the label says Thailand, the U.S. should stop buying it.”