By Sean Callebs and Jason Morris
It's an absolutely beautiful New Orleans sunset, the kind of night that used to be a bonanza for shrimpers like Paul Willis.
"We are trying to make a living, but because these foreign countries are using cheap labor, slave labor – call it whatever you want – we can't compete, we just can't compete. This pass on an evening like this would have had 300 vessels in here ready to shrimp. You are going to see eight tonight, that's what's happened to this industry."
Willis says the U.S. shrimp market has completely crashed. Fuel costs and Mother Nature may be a never-ending battle, but Willis says his biggest foe is cheap shrimp pouring in from Asia. He only makes as much per pound today as he did 15 years ago. While cut-rate Asian shrimp are sold for three dollars a pound, by the time he pays for fuel and crew wages, he's looking at spending more than four dollars to harvest a pound a shrimp just to break even.
A three-year investigation by the AFL-CIO affiliated Solidarity Center, funded in part by the U.S. State Department, found several leading U.S. retailers received shrimp from plants in Thailand and Bangladesh where workers as young as 8-years-old are subject to sweatshop conditions.
Industry figures show that 87 percent of the shrimp imported to the US is raised at those on-land facilities. The rest comes from fishing boats where slave labor is also a problem according to Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, the director of the U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons:
"Bodies wash up routinely on the shores of Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia, where they have been tossed overboard. And usually it's for asking for a fair wage, talking back to the boss, asking to be taken back to shore."
However, not all critics agree with the report. The Aquaculture Certification Council, an American agency that runs global certification of food safety, says the report is “exaggerated,” is based on old information and since it came out the industry has made a lot of improvements, including tighter requirements on working conditions and employee’s rights in order for the plants to get certified.
Shrimp is a $13 billion global industry and the most valuable seafood import into the United States. The National Fisheries Institute, a trade association committed to assisting its members to succeed in the global seafood marketplace, says many retail stores and restaurants only use shrimp that is certified as "slave free."
The National Fisheries Institute, a trade association committed to assisting its members to succeed in the global seafood marketplace, says 90% of the shrimp sold in the United States is imported, and that many retail stores and restaurants only use shrimp that is certified as “slave free.”
Consumers know when they are buying some seafood, like tuna, that it comes with a label that says "dolphin safe." But despite efforts of some countries and industry monitors to eliminate employee abuse, human rights critics complain that consumers buying other products from Asia, like shrimp, coffee, chocolate, or even inexpensive cotton shirts, still can’t be assured that they are slave-free.
Ambassador CdeBaca knows it's an uphill battle to convince Americans to make conscious choices not to contribute to slave labor. "We talk now a lot about the carbon foot print, and rightly so. To ask 'what decisions do I make that add to global warming?' I think it's time to ask the next question, which is 'what decisions have I made today that contribute to slavery?' Even with me based on what I do for a living, I can't guarantee you that I'm not slavery free."
Mark Horner is the southeast regional director for the Not For Sale campaign, an organization partnering with American businesses to root out what it says is the fastest growing crime in the world.
"What we originally thought was a $32 billion a year industry, could be as high as a $150 billion industry, second only to the drug trade," Horner says. "I think the majority of the public doesn't want to bite into food that is made with the blood of slaves."
Not For Sale works with companies and consumers to help trace the footprint of slavery in the products they buy and sell. They have developed a grading system for businesses and are also working with Apple to develop an iPhone application that will show consumers where the products they buy come from.
Horner stresses that this is truly the 1st generation since the 1850's that is talking about slavery again. "You know all of us have this preconception, and I remember talking about it in the 3rd grade, that slavery had been abolished in 1865. And that's not true. We right now have more slaves in the world than the entire 400 years of the west African slave trade."
For shrimpers like Paul Willis, the current impact on his livelihood is all too real, and he understands how important it is for American consumers to ask the hard questions. "People are reluctant. They probably want to believe what's going on. They've heard tales about why can they sell this shirt for five bucks when if it was made in the U.S.A. it would cost $16. How can that be done? Well it can be done because you are not paying people or you are barely paying them."