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December 3rd, 2009
09:11 AM ET

'Slave labor' blamed for falling shrimp prices

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."

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Patrick Layman

    Newfoundland, Canada

    This is having the same affect here on shrimp and other species. The large plants with a dragger fleet have been shipping shrimp to china for processing and returned for market cheaper than processing locally. The chinese labour is paid about 40 Cents an hour. It has become a political football with politicians being lobbied to allow the processors to ship out with a promise of extra weeks of work for the plant workers, but at the same time the processors cannot pay the independent vessels under 65' more than 30 to 40 cents a pound.

    February 28, 2010 at 5:33 am |
  2. priscilla

    Yes, the packaging will say something like "Product from Thailand", please don't buy these! Buy domestic harvested shrimp...

    January 10, 2010 at 1:45 am |
  3. Linda Roundhill

    I wonder if COSTCO is aware of this. They have consistently low prices on shrimp and I used to buy it, but I checked the labels and all their shrimp products come from Thailand. I now no longer buy shrimp from there and I am writing COSTCO to see if their buyers are aware of the fair trade issue concerning this. However, almost EVERY bag of frozen shrimp I have looked at from ANY store now says Product of Thailand. This is a big problem folks...

    December 23, 2009 at 1:38 am |
  4. robert barry jr

    this is for the consumers wandering why the price of shrimp is still high in the stores In the year 2001 imports started pouring in at a higher rate than the years befor. the usa took a huge shipment that was dumped on us because the european countries would not accept them because their food and drug administration detected traces of antibiotics that cause bone marrow disease basically lucemia,but our good ole fda allowed them to be dumped in our country for pennies on the dollar.that was the start of the decline in price on the wholesale end. The price for shrimp has never droped on the retail end it has infact gone up several times since 2001.This is the reason you see high prices in the retail stores that price isnt even close to what us boat owners get.We are lucky if we get $2.50 per lb. for 10-15 head on white shrimp,which are the jumbo shrimp you see in some stores and normally go for about $9.00 or more a lb.So anyone who thinks we get $7.00 per lb. is way off base.

    December 18, 2009 at 9:41 pm |
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    December 13, 2009 at 11:59 pm |
  6. Tom from Vermillion, Ohio

    If the above is true (I am assuming it is). Then the simple solution is to apply a high tariff on these items at our ports of entry. The money collected could be held in some sort of escrow fund until such practices are halted and people are paid fairly. The same can be said of questionable forestry and mining practices. I believe it can be readily shown that these companies are making HUGE profits and wages in their upper managements. Control the money flow according to what the workers make, NOT to the Corporate Profits!

    December 7, 2009 at 7:17 am |
  7. jay m

    American workers now have to compete with slave labor in every Industry, it time to change the trade laws.

    December 5, 2009 at 12:12 pm |
  8. Nicole

    Excellent piece by CNN, and great comments all.
    It's overwhelming to try to make sure you are "buying right" with regard to all the aspects of concern these days. I found this handy little guide can help a lot.. .. when trying to asses companies who use fair trade practices & human rights guidelines, if you are trying to shop in good conscience...

    December 5, 2009 at 12:49 am |
  9. ronald

    Our shrimp industry is bad, cause we Americans love to buy on the cheap even at the cost of the jobs held by our neighbors. next time you see shrimp dirt cheap at walmart, guess where it came from? i bet it is from southeast asia, how about you?
    next time you hear about cheap slave labor of children elsewhere, always remember,out own nation passed laws and enforces our laws to permit our children to not work like in the days of the great depression.
    In decades past,children were working in coal mines, now they do not. Now, if you see any stories of any american retailer having bought seafood from any child labor issue,i say boycott that company, and tell your friends, cause this industry may one day be saved,otherwise the shrimp industry will all be flipping burgers at mcdonalds in our service industry.
    i say, WAKE UP AMERICA, save this industry today, cause tomorrow someone might be wanting your industry to be saved.
    I am not a seafood industry worker, but today it is them, tomorrow it is you. Whom is going to save your job next? You think it will the seafood workers saving your job? wake up fools

    December 4, 2009 at 9:18 am |
  10. Joel

    Well, the world powers can police nukes, illegal arms, illegal drugs, and the like. But tracing the origin and/or processing of food is next to impossible. The US has made progress in the areas of meat and vegetables, but only in a reactionary effort because of food-borne disease outbreaks. As long as Asian countries continue to plunder the oceans for fish and shellfish, it will be close to impossible to police the illegal practices. Walmart is somewhat complicit in this, but at least they put the country of origin on their packages. And they are all Asian.

    How is any one government (at least one that cares) going to enforce abuses of workers and environmental laws when they are getting $$ put into their treasuries? The answer is - never. Governments worldwide are corrupt, and they don't care where the money comes from, as long as the money keeps flowing into their pockets.

    December 3, 2009 at 5:59 pm |
  11. adonis

    If the prices are so low, what's the reason when I go to the grocery store or fish market, shrimps (varieties of them) are selling for no less than $7.00 dollars a pound and up? Tonight, I will go by the grocery store and see exactly the price is for each size and preparation (head-on, head-off, peeled, unpeeled, devein, unvein. Somebody is lying through their teeth.

    How much are shrimpers selling their product for by the pound?

    December 3, 2009 at 5:28 pm |
  12. jeen

    Protectionism now! If the government cannot make it, then each of us can, buy local, buy whatever little is done here in the US. Save your money and do not send it to this countries

    December 3, 2009 at 5:26 pm |
  13. Evan Wright

    Shrimp isn't the only industry competing with slave labor. EVERY industry competing with CHINA is competing with slave labor.

    December 3, 2009 at 5:17 pm |
  14. Brian

    Depending on the outcome, I think one way to battle this would be to highly publicize any health risks involved with eating shrimp from Asia. Remember what happened not too long ago when we saw all those disgusting pictures on the news from the asian fish farms? People were disgusted, and now all the grocery stores clearly label the fish to show where it's from. I will not, no matter how much cheaper it is, buy any seafood from outside of Canada, the USA, and Mexico simply because it is so gross the conditions of fish that comes from overseas.

    December 3, 2009 at 5:15 pm |
  15. Jamie

    While I don't want to take attention away from the real global problem of slave Iabor but there is never one measure or reason that commodity prices fall. The Gulf of Mexico is used as an oil field and trash can, and with the Katrina and the continuing hurricanes over the Gulf, I would safely bet that is at least partly behind the rise in Asian shrimping. Furthermore this is equating cheap labor and slave labor, and both are very different concepts.

    December 3, 2009 at 2:57 pm |
  16. Sonya Youngblood

    To the writers of this article:

    Great reporting! Now, take it the next step and delve into the businesses in the US that are buying these products. I bet an article exposing our chain restaurants would horrify folks and we would see many change their purchasing behaviors. This is where reporters can make a difference for all of us in exposing which industries are buying these products. Show up to speak with their Corporate Communications staffs and expose the companies making money from slavery. People will read a series of articles on this and do the right thing – trust me. We just need good in-depth reporting by our news organizations – the written word will always prevail over a 30-second newstory on tv.

    Through the news, I was educated on the fish products coming out of China and when I go to the grocer, I always ask for the country of origin. If it is China, I tell them that i will not purchase it. I will only purchase catfish from the USA because our industries are regulated.

    Also, look into the labeling requirements and disclosure requirements for grocers and restaurants – that could be a great angle on this, too.

    This story begs for more in-depth follow-up! Thanks!

    December 3, 2009 at 2:49 pm |
  17. Scottish Mama in MO.

    I would like to know if the packaging says it is from Asia?

    December 3, 2009 at 10:48 am |