As the third largest seafood provider in the world, the seafood sector in Thailand is worth $7.3 billion US. Unknown to the consumers worldwide, their purchase of seafood from Thailand may very well be sponsoring a remote and horrific modern-day slavery. U.S. consumers have reason to feel particularly shocked by the slavery exposed in Thailand, because it is the second largest seafood supplier for U.S, but here is an even more shocking fact: modern-day slavery is happening right here in U.S.
In Thailand, labor-intensive jobs are hard to find domestic workers. Nearby countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia have plenty of people eager to fill such openings, but the immigration process in Thailand is complicated and time-consuming. As a result, many of them turn to brokers to get into Thailand, under the promise of good works in factories, farms, or constructions. Most of them would find out their brokers are selling them for $650 per head to fishing ships as slaves—they receive no pay and have to work whenever ordered to avoid being beaten. These ships usually spend years without docking, making contact only with large ships to sell the catch and get supplies, and very few can escape without being captured. Captains or senior crews, usually Thailand citizens, would torture those captured and killing is not unusual.
The latest exposure of this horrible slavery in Thailand was from Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) of London. EJF advocated for the installation of GPS on all fishing ships and for all catches to have catching time and locations recorded, among other methods, to curb this modern-day slavery. Although there are cases where the Thailand police rescued slaves, it is generally believed the police is corrupted and is reluctant to pursue the brokers or captains known to be involved in this human-trafficking. For the few slaves who made it to the shore in Thailand, the usual practice is to put them in confinement and limit their communications to families, as a form of protection to prevent the trafficking criminals from muddling the case. But cases can drag on in the justice system for years and many victims would chose to drop the case, so they can leave to find another job to support their families back home.
As shocking as this Thailand slavery exposure is, it pales when comparing to the happening of forced labor, many of whom were confined with shackles and chains at night as if it was before 1850, in the agriculture business of U.S. The most infamous slavery is in the tomato business in South Florida. In the winter months, Florida supplies almost all of the tomato for the rest of U.S. Many of the workers there are under the exact same condition as those on fishing ships in Thailand. Most of them are from Mexico or Guatemala in desperate need for work to support their families back home, and fell prey to traffickers who made false promise of living conditions and income as a tomato picker.
The slavery in Florida is different from that in Thailand seafood industry in two ways: 1) most of the workers were recruited after they crossed the border into U.S. and 2) all of them do receive payment. The latter makes it not slavery but the supposed payment is just a cover for it really is. Debt bondage is involved in every case of Florida tomato picker. Traffickers promise well-paid jobs to lure workers to tomato plots that are far from other settlements. Without transportation means, workers can not leave after realizing the paycheck promised can merely cover the expense, demanded by their crew leader for everything from transportation, accommodation, hygiene, food, work equipment, etc. And everything has an exorbitant imaginary price tag: a run-down mobile home shared by more than 10 workers demands a rent of $200 per person, dry tortillas costs $50 per week and a shower under a cold hose needs $5. No matter how hard they work (12 to 14 hours a day everyday is not unusual), they just fall deeper into debts according to his crew leader. Workers who refuse to work got beaten and these who failed the escape attempts were treated with brutality. In the last 10 or 15 years, more than 1,200 people have been freed from slavery rings in Florida agriculture and it is still going on.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a not-for-profit organization consisted of mostly local tomato pickers in southern Florida, is very active to expose the slavery in the region and to demand better working condition through its Campaign for Fair Food. The Campaign runs boycotts against fast food restaurants, the largest users of Florida tomatoes, and organizes protests against supermarkets, demanding them to use slavery-free tomatoes and to pay workers a living wage. Fair Code of Conduct of the Campaign includes informational sessions for workers to know their rights, such as the federal minimum wage, break times and overtime pay. Huge victories include the signing up of Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Burger King and Whole Foods.
There is no sign that the slavery in Thailand seafood can be curbed, as people in nearby countries still have plenty of reasons to leave their homeland, creating a high population to fall prey to traffickers, and the Thailand government has not required better transparency in its seafood industry or tougher police crackdown. Although the happening of slavery in U.S. is more shocking than its exposure in Thailand, progresses have been made in U.S. thanks to CIW. Despite the number of companies signed up in its Campaign for Fair Food are still small, U.S. will one day be truly “the land of the free” for everyone. Learning from the success of CIW, educating consumers and demanding the supply chain to be slavery-free are the key to battle this ancient crime which is incredibly stubborn to die. U.S. is blamed for repeatedly giving Thailand waivers so it is not listed among the worst human-trafficking countries, which could have a big impact on its seafood export Such international politics probably have other complex factors in play and can be hard to expect a change. But for consumers, nothing but a plain consciousness is needed to take action to stop being a part of such horrific crime, no matter where it happens.
Opinion by Tina Zhang