« August 2008 Table of Contents
Progress in process
Controversial report alleges seafood labor abuses,
criticizes certification standards
By James Wright
August 01, 2008
Providing consumers the information they demand about their
food choices requires that seafood buyers examine a complex
catalog of sourcing criteria. Sustainability, food safety and
the environmental impacts of fishing and farming activities top
their checklists, along with the typical issues of price and
availability. While these matters are more or less measurable,
another element shaping purchasing policies - social justice -
is far more difficult to ascertain, especially when a supplier
is located on the opposite side of the world.
In Southeast Asia, where the lion's share of the U.S. shrimp
supply is produced, the low cost of labor attracts a wealth of
foreign business. Over the past decade, processing muscle in
Asia has exacerbated the U.S. seafood trade deficit - more than
80 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is imported, highlighted
by shrimp at more than 1 billion pounds annually. During this
value-added revolution, conditions facing workforces at
processing facilities were overshadowed by environmental
concerns and the increasing demand for sustainable seafood.
But in late April, a controversial report alleged extensive
cruelty of seafood processing workers in Bangladesh and
Thailand, the latter being the United States' No. 1 shrimp
supplier. The report claimed that the shrimp industry and its
leading sustainability-certification program, the Global
Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture Practices, weren't
doing enough to enforce fair practices, and it questioned the
credibility of its widely accepted labor standards.
Suddenly, America's most popular seafood had a sweatshop
stigma attached to it.
"The Degradation of Work: The True Cost of Shrimp," released
by the Solidarity Center, a Washington, D.C., worker rights
group affiliated with the AFL-CIO, detailed widespread abuse of
workers at 15 Thai and 10 Bangladeshi shrimp-processing plants
via anonymous worker interviews. Shrimp has become the most
popular seafood species in the United States (4.1 pounds
consumed per capita in 2007) and its rise to prominence, the
report concluded, came at a hefty price.
"The 'shrimp boom' is sustained through a staggering,
largely hidden cost to workers, their families and the
environment," the report stated. "Not for the first time, the
drive to make a product for the world market quickly and
cheaply leaves a trail of abuse, misery and damaged lives. The
true cost of shrimp is not what is seen on a supermarket price
tag or a restaurant menu."
The shocking allegations left the seafood industry
defenseless: Because offending plants were not identified, the
National Fisheries Institute of McLean, Va., argued U.S.
importers and shrimp buyers couldn't properly respond to the
claims and commence corrective action.
"NFI abhors any kind of worker abuse. We have a strong
expectation that suppliers are free of any kind of abuse like
that," says NFI President John Connelly. "You have to make sure
your workers aren't being mistreated. Whether that's through a
third party, or direct inspections, proper treatment is ante
into the game.
"But if [the Solidarity Center] wants to highlight a
problem, they should get engaged in solving it."
However, the report did name several U.S. retailers -
including giants Costco and Wal-Mart - that procured shrimp
from plants where alleged abuses took place. Cub Foods, Giant,
Giant Eagle, Harris Teeter, IGA, Tops Markets and Trader Joe's
were also named as buyers. In late 2005, Wal-Mart committed to
sourcing up to 90 percent of its shrimp from operations
certified as sustainable and engaging in responsible social
practices within three to five years.
"We hold our shrimp suppliers to the highest safety and
quality standards - including maintaining processing plants and
packaging facilities that meet or exceed Best Aquaculture
Practices (BAP) standards set by the Global Aquaculture
Alliance (GAA)," says Deisha Galberth, senior manager for
Promote Communications, which represents Wal-Mart. "We continue
to work with our suppliers to review the Solidarity Center's
report and always strive to meet the highest standards in food
But in the weeks following the report's release, NFI says
the authors repeatedly rebuffed its requests for transparency
"Our primary concern is the security and well being of the
workers involved in this study. We want to avoid a situation
where facilities are shut down, workers are fired and worker
rights advocates are endangered in an attempt to suppress
rather than address the industry's problems," Joan Welsh,
communications program officer for the Solidarity Center's
Global Outreach Department, told
SeaFood Business shortly
after the report was released.
In initial talks with NFI, Welsh expressed fears that
importers would boycott Thai or Bangladeshi shrimp, says
Connelly. The claim, he adds, "shows an incredible lack of
understanding," considering the nations' importance to the U.S.
seafood supply. Last year, Thailand exported $1.3 billion worth
of shrimp to the United States, or roughly half of its total
A wake-up call
Certification standards for sustainable aquaculture set by
the GAA of St. Louis, the Solidarity Center claimed, are not
specific or stringent enough to deter Thai shrimp farms and
processing plants from putting migrant workers from embattled
neighbor Myanmar (formerly Burma) onto 18-hour shifts and
engaging in human trafficking, which Rep. Carolyn Maloney
(D-N.Y.) dubbed "21st century slavery." (Maloney is co-founder
and co-chair of the Human Trafficking Caucus and attended the
Solidarity Center's press conference.)
GAA Executive Director Wally Stevens says none of the
alleged abuses occurred at plants that meet its certification
standards, which are called Best Aquaculture Practices
"Long term, the marketplace will be more effective in
screening out this type of behavior with voluntary programs
like ours," says Stevens. "The marketplace we're familiar with
has sent the message loud and clear: Abide by these
"[The report] was more of a wake-up call for companies that
are not [participating] in sustainability programs," he
Nearly one-fifth of BAP standards concern social issues
ranging from workers' access to safety equipment and healthy
living quarters to fair monetary compensation. The Aquaculture
Certification Council (ACC) of Kirkland, Wash., enforces BAP
standards and conducts certification audits at shrimp
hatcheries, farms and processing plants. According to ACC's Web
site, 24 of 69 BAP-certified shrimp processing plants are in
Thailand, several of which are located in Samutsakorn province
in southern Thailand, where most of the Solidarity Center's
interviews took place.
Bill More, ACC operations director, says the group's
auditors are well versed in the United Nations' International
Labor Organization regulations and SA8000, a global social
accountability standard requiring decent working conditions.
Additionally, site visits are regularly conducted on short-term
notice, typically less than one day.
Despite all of the requirements in place for certification,
More agrees the marketplace has helped to expedite change in
how the Southeast Asian workforce is treated.
"The EU flat-out refused to buy from [Southeast Asian
countries] unless they cleaned up their reputations," says
"But usually, it's not the plants themselves" where abuses
occur, he adds. "It's in the outsourcing operations. A lot of
product gets 'farmed out.' These operations help at a time of
year, maybe one or two months, when there's a lot of product
coming in. They're not as careful as processing plants may
Stevens acknowledges that some facilities could temporarily
clean up only for inspectors' visits, but says it's very
unlikely. "It's naive to not think [abuse is] not happening
somewhere," he says. "Just not on our watch."
The reaction overseas
An official with the Thai embassy in the United States, when
asked for his reaction to the report, stood by his nation's
longstanding efforts to stamp out mistreatment of workers, many
of whom are refugees from Myanmar driven away by natural
disasters or having fled the country seeking political asylum.
According to the Solidarity Center, about 3 million Burmese
migrants live in Thailand and work in its low-wage sectors,
including fishing and seafood processing. The Thai embassy
official says that since 1996, more than 1 million illegal
workers from Myanmar registered with federal authorities for
greater access to welfare and healthcare. And, according to a
2006 U.S. Department of State human rights report, Thailand has
signed anti-trafficking memorandums of understanding with
Cambodia and Laos.
"The Royal Thai Government takes all reports of sub-standard
labor practices very seriously and makes their correction our
highest priority," says Minister Kessiri Siripakorn, Office of
Commercial Affairs, Royal Thai Embassy in Washington, D.C.
"However, the Solidarity Center's report, and later reporting
by CNN, inaccurately suggested that gross mistreatment of
migrant workers was the norm in Thailand, rather than an
"The True Cost of Shrimp" detailed a litany of abuses
ranging from extremely low wages (some less than $30 a month)
and confiscated identity documents to sexual, physical and
psychological abuse of workers, including migrant workers and
children under 15 years of age, the legal age limit in both
Thailand and the United States.
Especially egregious were the claims of abuse at the Ranya
Paew shrimp-processing facility in Samutsakorn, which was
raided by Thai police and immigration officials in September
2006. Undocumented migrant workers were found to be working
around the clock at a fortress-like facility surrounded by
barbed wire, a scene the police described as "a little short of
medieval." The Ranya Paew raid was the only instance of abuse
that was identified by name and had already been reported on by
major news outlets.
"The raid by Thai police, in conjunction with our regular
inspections, demonstrates Thailand's efforts to maintain the
highest levels of transparency in our enforcement of labor
standards and the prosecution of those companies that do not
fulfill their obligations in meeting those standards," adds
Sirapakorn says there are approximately 700,000 workers in
the Thai shrimp industry, including farmers, middlemen and
workers in 1,415 processing factories. In early June, the Thai
Frozen Food Association led a delegation from the U.S.
Immigration & Customs Enforcement and the Fight Against
Child Exploitation Foundation on a tour of 13 shrimp factories,
representing a cross-section of TFFA membership, Siripakorn
"None were found to have any problems regarding working
conditions or to have used child labor in their production
processes," he says.
Also, Bangladeshi labor officials in July announced that
U.S. trade representatives were "very much convinced" that the
country had made significant progress in labor-standards
compliance in the shrimp sector, which it claims is now free of
The push for change
With its presence in Asia, the ACC and GAA serve as the eyes
and ears for shrimp importers that can't oversee their
suppliers' operations, screening out those engaging in
irresponsible practices. Eastern Fish Co. of Teaneck, N.J.,
imports more than 60 million pounds of shrimp annually, with
nearly a third from Thailand; the company also sources shrimp
"We've been really pushing our plants to go to GAA for what
it represents: food safety, justice and the environment. [It's
a] package of assurances and principles," says company
President Eric Bloom, who is also NFI chairman. Eastern Fish,
which markets shrimp under the SAIL brand, was one of 13
importers named in the Solidarity Center report as importers of
shrimp from plants where abuses occurred.
"GAA encompasses all those factors in its charter and makes
us feel good about who we're buying from. It's not a formal
requirement now; down the road it could be. We're working with
our customers to see if we need to go further," says Bloom.
"It's possible things are hidden, but we've had no cooperation
from the Solidarity Center and we are left to question whether
their allegations are sensationalism."
BAP supporters, including importers and retailers, say the
standards are poised for wider acceptance as consumers seek
transparency throughout the supply chain. While food safety
garnered more headlines over the past year, the Solidarity
Center report brought social justice to light.
To support responsible players, seafood buyers will rely on
certification programs like the GAA's Best Aquaculture
Practices, which has become the most prominent certification
standard for farmed shrimp. Currently, one-quarter of global
shrimp production, 40 percent of Thai shrimp exports and
one-third of U.S.-consumed shrimp go through a BAP-certified
"It's further evidence of the importance of rigorous
scientific standards and broad marketplace endorsement so that
the bad players can be left out. It's the most effective
mechanism for cleaning up this activity," says Stevens of the
GAA. "We're looking to do things the right way. A group like
ours is an ally in the push for change."
Assistant Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at