Thai Shrimp Industry Exploits Workers to Satisfy Global Appetite

The world--especially the U.S.--wants cheap shrimp. For the $1 billion plus shrimping industry in Thailand, fulfilling this desire comes at the expense of workers. Special correspondent Steve Sapienza reports on the abusive working conditions in the Thai shrimping industry, including corruption, human trafficking and violence.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the demand for cheap shrimp has sparked abuses in Thailand's growing industry. Americans consume more imported shrimp from Thailand than any other country.

Our report is part of a collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

It comes from special correspondent Steve Sapienza in Thailand.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Thailand is the source of one-third of all shrimp imported by the U.S. each year, and the low price has fueled a growing appetite for it.

The Thai shrimp industry is thriving. Hundreds of factories, large and small, will ship over 200,000 tons of shrimp to the U.S. this year, generating over $1 billion in income.

But there's a darker side to the business here, one that includes human trafficking, corruption, and violence against workers.

Migrants from nearby Burma are the lifeblood of the Thai shrimp industry. Most Thais won't work for the low wages paid by the shrimp companies. So, today, as many as 400,000 Burmese migrants work in Samut Sakhon, where 40 percent of Thailand's shrimp are peeled and frozen for export. Only 70,000 workers are legally registered.

SOMPONG SAKAEW, Labor Rights Promotion Network (through translator): There are an estimated 1,200 to 1,300 factories, 300 or 400 of which are not registered with the government.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Thai labor activist Sompong Sakaew says the most severe abuses occur in the network of unregistered, almost invisible peeling sheds that supply shrimp to larger factories for export to the U.S.

SOMPONG SAKAEW (through translator): The small factory owners know that most of their workers are undocumented, so they can control the work force however they want, such as locking workers in until they finish their work. There are also teenagers between 12 and 17 years old in the work force.

KO NGWE HTAY, Burmese migrant worker (through translator): We were made to work from 3:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. We earned about $10 a day. Our hands were like machines.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Like most migrants, Ko Ngwe Htay was eager to leave Burma, where jobs are scarce and the salaries very low. The father of five easily found a labor broker and paid in advance for a job in Thailand.

KO NGWE HTAY (through translator): I was smuggled in. My village had burned down. We had nothing to get by. We had some gold that we had sold, and we used that to get here.

STEVE SAPIENZA: When Ko Ngwe's family reached Thailand and began work, the peeling shed owner trapped them in debt.

KO NGWE HTAY (through translator): We had to pay for everything ourselves, for meals, for housing. We didn't earn a daily wage. We earned based on how many kilograms of shrimp we peeled. If we finished, for example, 30 kilos, we only got paid for 20 kilos.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Ko Ngwe's 16-year-old daughter was the fastest shrimp peeler in the shed, a distinction that earned her no favor with the owner.

THAZIN MON HTAY, former shrimp peeler (through translator): My hands were so painful that I could not even put on the gloves. I said I would go to the clinic and then take only one day off. But she, the owner, cursed me. And then she called her brother and threatened me. She said, if I do not work, she will lock me up with her brother in a room.

STEVE SAPIENZA: After six months, Ko Ngwe managed to call relatives, who bought his family's freedom from the factory owner. He still lives in Thailand, now working to pay back his relatives in Burma.

SOMPONG SAKAEW (through translator): Police are not willing to cooperate, and certain laws regarding exploitation and human trafficking are loosely enforced. The brokers may be arrested, but their employers and factory owners are able to bail them out of jail.

ANDY HALL, Mahidol University: If you look at the cost of shrimp, obviously, it's very, very -- very, very cheap. And that comes from the exploitation which is inherent in the system in Thailand.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Andy Hall researches Burmese migrant labor issues at Thailand's Mahidol University.

ANDY HALL: I think the industry, as a whole, is not regulated properly. And I don't think there is enough traceability in where the shrimp are coming from, and that's where the exploitation comes in.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The spokesman for the Thai Frozen Food Association, Arthon Piboonthanapatana, insists the shrimp industry supply chain is not tainted by labor violations.

Can you guarantee to U.S. consumers that the shrimp that is produced here in Thailand and ends up on their plates is free from child labor and also exploitive labor practices?

ARTHON PIBOONTHANAPATANA, Thai Frozen Foods Association: If the shrimp is from TFFA members, I can 100 percent guarantee this.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Part of his guarantee rests on weekly inspections conducted by the TFFA at its member factories.

ARTHON PIBOONTHANAPATANA: We are making unannounced visits to our members and also to all the suppliers at the moment. So if anyone get caught to be -- to use child labor or to abuse the work force, they automatically get expelled from TFFA.

STEVE SAPIENZA: But critics point out problems with the industry-led audits.

ANDY HALL: We do know from speaking to workers that, often, when there's audits in the factories, children will be sent home. Half of the work force who don't have documents will be asked to stay home.

And, generally, when these audits happen, people know in advance that they are going to happen, and therefore the conditions are improved. We have heard that a lot, which suggests they are being deceived.

STEVE SAPIENZA: So, after three years of doing these inspections almost every Friday...


STEVE SAPIENZA: ... you guys have found no violations...


STEVE SAPIENZA: No child laborers?


STEVE SAPIENZA: No problems with passports being held from workers or workers being paid below minimum wage, anything like that?


ANDY HALL: So, they will look at the factories which are packaging and exporting where the conditions are reasonable. Most of these are big international companies are being audited. And they are. But nobody is looking where the shrimp come from.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The Thai shrimp industry doesn't allow independent third-party audits of its factories and peeling sheds. However, our own investigation, using a worker with a hidden camera, confirmed workplace violations in a peeling shed that supplies a top exporter of shrimp to the U.S. market.

MAN (through translator): Processed shrimp from the factory are sent to the Thai Royal factory twice a day. I saw four children. They were about 15 years old. I think 20 out of the 50 workers did not have work permits.

STEVE SAPIENZA: The lack of transparency in the Thai shrimp industry has contributed to Thailand's poor human trafficking record.

For the third year in a row, Thailand has been placed on the U.S. State Department's watch list for not showing evidence of increasing efforts to address human trafficking compared to the previous year.

SOMPONG SAKAEW (through translator): To a certain extent, the Thai government is serious about the matter, as they are heavily accused of human trafficking by the U.S. government.

To solve the problem, there needs to be a cooperation between factory owners, the government sector and NGOs involved. But there is an obstacle to the resolution due to the corruption of officials and bribery.

STEVE SAPIENZA: Critics warn that, until the Thai shrimp industry opens its factories to independent audits, the shrimp it exports will likely remain tainted by human trafficking.

MARGARET WARNER: Steve Sapienza has reported other stories about the price of producing items many of us take for granted. Find a link on our website to the Pulitzer Center's Global Goods, Local Costs page.