Modern day slavery exposed in Thai prawn industry

After a six-month investigation, the Guardian newspaper has uncovered how big supermarkets in the UK, US, Europe and Australia are selling prawns in a supply chain fed by slave labour. The Thai fishing industry, it claims, is built on slavery, with men often beaten, tortured and sometimes killed – all to catch ‘trash fish’ to feed the cheap farmed prawns sold in the west.

Thailand produces roughly 4.2m tonnes of seafood every year, 90% of which is destined for export, official figures show. The US, UK and EU are prime buyers of this seafood – with Americans buying half of all Thailand’s seafood exports and the UK alone consuming nearly 7% of all Thailand’s prawn exports.

“The use of trafficked labour is systematic in the Thai fishing industry,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, who describes a “predatory relationship” between these migrant workers and the captains who buy them.

“The industry would have a hard time operating in its current form without it.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a high-ranking broker explained to the Guardian how Thai boat owners phone him directly with their “order”: the quantity of men they need and the amount they’re willing to pay for them.

“Each guy costs about 25,000-35,000 baht [£450-£640] – we go find them,” explains the goateed broker, who operates out of the industrial fishing and prawn-processing hub of Samut Sakhon, just south of the capital, Bangkok.

“The boat owner finds the way to pay and then that debt goes to the labourers.”

At various points along the way, checkpoints are passed and officials bribed – with Thai border police often playing an integral role.

“Police and brokers – the way I see it – we’re business partners,” explains the broker, who claims to have trafficked thousands of migrants into Thailand over the past five years. “We have officers working on both sides of the Thai-Burmese border. If I can afford the bribe, I let the cop sit in the car and we take the main road.

“This is a big chain,” he adds. “You have to understand: everyone’s profiting from it. These are powerful people with powerful positions – politicians.”

The price captains pay for these men is a extremely low even by historical standards. According to the anti-trafficking activist Kevin Bales, slaves cost 95% less than they did at the height of the 19th-century slave trade – meaning that they are not regarded as investments for important cash crops such as cotton or sugar, as they were historically, but as disposable commodities.

For the migrants who believed Thailand would bring them opportunity, the reality of being sent out to sea is devastating.

“They told me I was going to work in a pineapple factory,” recalls Kyaw, a broad-shouldered 21-year-old from rural Burma. “But when I saw the boats, I realised I’d been sold … I was so depressed, I wanted to die.”….

The Guardian: Read the full article here

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