The cost of frozen prawns is greater than the supermarket price ticket, reveals Bill Redmond, in an industry in which seafarers become slaves/
Thailand’s trawlers of terror shame food supply chains
Logisticians have to cope with many variables in their global supply chains but how many realise how intractable, ubiquitous corruption has the potential to wreck their best laid plans, or appreciate that their purblind directors’ acceptance of corruption issues perpetuates unimaginable misery involving people trafficking, slavery and murder? The reaction of an outraged public to the results of such corruption and crime can quickly lead to global boycotts of JIT-supplied goods and so without a robust plan B already in place to source elsewhere, logisticians will have nightmares. That is why corruption in their supply chains should concern them deeply.
It is a true axiom that for evil men to triumph it only takes good men to look the other way, and there is far too much of looking the other way in the global food supply chain, in particular. Just such a scenario is being played out in the seas around Thailand where many thousands of trafficked migrants face brutality and murder on trawlers serving the vast Thai prawn farming industry while simply trying to earn a higher standard of living to support their families in relatively poorer countries like Burma and Cambodia. But it is not a new phenomenon, nor is it confined to Thai waters. Such trawler slavery also extends its brutal, corrosive grip to New Zealand’s fishing grounds, where cooperation between New Zealand-based fish processors and foreign-owned trawlers crewed by exploited migrants has allowed the trade to flourish for years. Britain and Ireland’s trawlers have also tainted hands in this tide of misery.*
The household name retailers at the end of this odious supply chain have often extolled their roles as responsible citizens eschewing all forms of slavery and exploitation in their supply chains yet the problem remains and worsens, indicating that consumers can no longer rely on such ineffectual protestations. Just how bad the Thai prawn industry is for criminal behaviour can be gauged by the UK Guardian newspaper’s revelation based on its own, just released, six-month undercover investigation. It is a damning indictment of supply chain apathy, and Thai Government corruption, without which this vile trade could not survive.
Torn apart by the limbs
The investigation found that slaves were forced to work for no pay on trawlers for years at a time under extreme threats of violence. Large numbers of poor migrants told by their hired brokers that they would be found jobs in manufacturing or on building sites ended up being sold to trawler captains by the brokers for as little as £250 each. This ruse has also been used for British and Irish trawlers. Shifts could be grindingly-long, 20-hour stints, helped by frequently-offered energy-boosting drugs. Beatings are regular and there is torture and execution-style killings. Some trawler escapees reported seeing fellow slaves murdered in front of them. One trafficking victim claimed he had witnessed as many as 20 slaves killed, including one who was tied limb by limb to the bows of four boats and pulled apart at sea. “We were beaten even if we worked hard”, said another.
Farmed prawns are big business for Thailand, with exports of 500,000 tons, of which Britain and America take about 10%. Overall fish exports are worth about $7.3 billion a year. The largest Thai-based prawn farmer is CP Foods, with reported annual sales of £20 billion. They buy fish meal made from ‘trash fish’ (too small and inedible) which is caught in huge amounts during pursuit of tuna. Ground into meal, the trash fish is then fed to the farmed prawns, and the company also supplies the feed to other prawn farms. Their products end up on British and American shop shelves as frozen and cooked prawns and ready-made meals like prawn stir fry. Apart from the big four food retailers, Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco, the Guardian also identified the Co-op, Aldi, Morrison and Iceland as stocking CP Foods’ products.
CP Foods makes no pretence about not knowing that slave labour is part of its supply chains. “We are not here to defend what is going on,” reportedly said Bob Miller, CP Foods’ UK managing director. “We know there are issues with regard to raw materials that come in but to what extent we just don’t have the visibility,” he added.
Thailand a slavery node point
The brutal fact is, however, that alarm over Thailand’s fishing slavery has been sounded before by NGOs and in UN reports. Thailand is considered a major source, transit and destination country for slavery and nearly 0.5 million are enslaved within the country. There is no official record of how many men are enslaved on fishing boats but the Thai Government believes that up to 300,000 work in its fishing industry, 90% of whom are migrants vulnerable to being duped, trafficked or sold to the sea. Rights groups have long pointed to Thailand’s big labour shortage in its fishing sector, which along with increased demand from America and Europe for cheap prawns, has driven the need for cheap labour. “We would like to solve the problem of Thailand because there is no doubt commercial interests have created much of this problem,” admits CP Foods’ Miller.
A key culprit in preventing any meaningful progress in this vile trade is the Thai Government, long known for its endemic corruption. In the global corruption rankings for 150 countries Thailand is a poor 81st and 97th in democracy rank. One high ranking Thai official who did not want to be identified said: “The Thai authorities could get rid of the brokers and arrange legal employment but the Government does not want to do that. It does not want to take action, and as long as boat owners still depend on brokers and not the Government to supply workers then the problem will never go away.”
Others, however, disagree. Two international union federations, the International Transport & Workers Federation (ITF) and the International Union of Food, Agricultural and Hospitality Workers (IUF) are working in Thailand to fight the slavery there. Liz Blackshaw, programme leader for the joint ITF/IUF From Catcher to Counter initiative, says the Guardian’s findings show the need to audit the entire supply chain to ensure that all products are sourced ethically and responsibly. “Consumers deserve and demand rigorous checking and transparency. There is a dramatic need for action in Thailand also,” she said.
At a Bangkok meeting last month in a multi-stakeholder forum on labour conditions in the Thai fishery sector, the ITF informed the Government and all stakeholders that it is irresponsible to refuse to ratify the ILO Work in Fishing Convention No 188. “It is shocking that Thailand’s new military government was this week the only one to vote against a new ILO protocol to fight forced labour. We would expect the USA to put the country in the worst category of its human trafficking blacklist.”
Many dark secrets
The ITF and IUF claim that the fishing sector has many dark secrets, not just in Thailand, and that there are improvements that could drastically change it for the better. Some of them include:
- All ILO member states should ratify the new protocol to the ILO “forced labour convention.”
- Full audits by retailers of fishery products supply chains to ensure ethical and responsible sourcing. (Some leading food retailers admit that their audits lack depth)
- Transparency and comprehensive information on where fish was harvested and the whole chain of processing to enable consumers to make ethical and socially responsible decisions.
- Aggressive programme of international criminal investigations into criminal activity and criminal failure to act.
- Company registration of fishing vessels over 20 mt long or 100 GMT.
- In regional fisheries management organisations and governments the leveraging of licencing allocations and catch quotas against compliance with human rights obligations and labour standards.
- Fishing vessels to have collective agreements on board to protect crews.
- Processing plants to have genuine union recognition and the rights to collective bargaining.
The Thai Governments have already been warned on four consecutive occasions that it was not doing enough to tackle slavery, which belies their claims that great progress has been made in tackling the slavery issue. The latest Guardian investigation further undermines the Government’s claims. Its undercover investigators unearthed a lawless and unregulated industry run by criminals and the Thai mafia, facilitated by Thai officials and sustained by the brokers who supply cheap migrant labour to boat owners.
Human rights activists believe that Thailand’s sea food export industry will probably collapse without slavery. This is highly unlikely. Paying agreed wages on time and respecting the rights of migrant crews would at most only add a few pence or cents to a prawn stir fry meal. Yet it is clear that in the light of the Thai Government’s refusal to act then more screw tightening should be applied by retailers and consumers. Norway has led the way with one leading retailer, ICA, announcing that it is removing scampi related to CP Foods from its shelves, a move actively backed by ITF and the Norwegian seafarers union. Surely now the time has come for all UK retailers to follow suit by banning all Thai-sourced prawns.
A threat to incomes is the greatest incentive to concentrate business minds to counter the threat with righteous action. If businesses take no action then they should remember that the ultimate weapon lies in the hands of consumers — concerted, indefinitely-sustained product boycotts. Hopefully it will not come to that and spread beyond fishing slavery issues to other industries, like tourism which accounts for over 7% of Thailand’s economy. It would be tragic if many of Thailand’s jobs disappeared, for trade is the hand maiden of prosperity and prosperity the surest guarantor of peace. Ultimately, however, trade must rest on the pillars of honesty, decency and respect for the rule of law. If any proof were needed of that then just consider what lack of good governance did for the global banking sector in 2008, the repercussions of which are still being sorely felt.