In an age where developed world consumers are increasingly concerned with their food's origin story, it is surprising, disturbing and terribly sad that the peel-and-eat shrimp many of us will be enjoying this holiday season has probably come to a supermarket shelf or a restaurant table via the labor of virtual slaves.
Burmese migrants, to be specific, who enter Thailand seeking work and soon find themselves pawns in the human trafficking-rich Thai seafood industry.
Hundreds of shrimp-peeling sheds are hidden in plain sight on residential streets or behind walls with no signs in Samut Sakhon, a port town an hour outside Bangkok. Sheds house 50 to 100 people each, many of whom are locked in all day.
As Burmese migrant-turned-shrimp slave Tin Nyo Win found, escape is not easy. Many workers are unable to break out of the cycle of debt and ownership that keeps them bound to the factories, and even those that do soon find themselves at a different factory.
"I was shocked after working there a while, and I realized there was no way out," said Tin Nyo Win. "I told my wife, 'We're in real trouble. If something ends up going wrong, we're going to die.'"
And the cause they are dying for, according to AP reports, is sending fresh-peeled shrimp from the Thai factories where they work to the U.S. and Europe. And once in the U.S., customer records indicate it drops into the supply chains of supermarkets and restaurants, including Walmart, Olive Garden, Kroger, Whole Foods, Red Lobster, Dollar General and Petco.
The industry is driven by an extreme enthusiasm for the product. Americans alone consume 1.3 billion pounds of shrimp per year. But for all of our collective enthusiasm for eating shrimp, Americans have no interest in cleaning it. This is what has skyrocketed demand and pushed the industry to Thailand where cheap labor is often free labor in the seafood industry — or labor that is as close to cheap as one can imagine. Tin Nyo Win and his wife apparently peeled 175 pounds of shrimp in a day — for only $4.
Those are adults, of course; child labor is so much slower, which is probably why children are paid half what adults are.
International pressure has been brought to bear, promises have been made to clean up the industry, but little has happened. Raids at Thai fish factories end with workers being returned and children choosing between solo deportation back to Burma or staying with their family in slave labor conditions.
Something to consider as you dig into shrimp cocktail on Christmas.