I’m sure we’ve all seen the shrimp and CP Foods items at Costco, and probably even bought some of them, I know I definitely have in the past. Unfortunately, it has come to light that CPFoods, Charoen Pokphand, has been dealing with suppliers in Thailand that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned with slaves. This is a shocking and deplorable situation and hopefully since it has been brought to light, Costco, Walmart, Tesco, and other large retailers that buy from CP Foods can work to change the situation.
The Guardian did a months long investigation into the Thai seafood industry and what it found is shocking and horrendous. Men from Thailand and other Southeast Asia nations such as Burma and Cambodia, are being bought and sold and forced to work for years on boats off the Thai coast. They are threatened, tortured, work for 20 hours at a time, and sometimes forced to witness the execution style murders of fellow slaves. Obviously, there is very little regulation and oversight in this industry from the Thai government. And the current disarray of the governance in Thailand, I fear, will only lead to prolonging this unacceptable practice in the seafood industry there.
CP Foods was at the heart of the investigation conducted by The Guardian. They are a huge company with a turnover of $33 billion/£20 billion, per year. CP Foods sells a variety of prawn based products, such as frozen or cooked shrimp, or ready made meals, like the soup at Costco, but they also sell feed to other prawn farms and other raw shrimp materials to food distributors. So, they have a very wide ranging reach in the food industry. They sell to supermarkets around the world: Aldi, Carrefour, Co-Operative, Costco, Iceland, Morrisons, and Walmart. So, this is a situation that affects many different companies, across many different countries.
CP Foods is not directly involved in the slavery, however, the suppliers that they get their fishmeal from, are directly involved in the practice in one way or another. The boats utilizing slavery catch the “trash fish” which are young or inedible fish that are then ground into fishmeal. It is the fishmeal itself that is then sold to CP Foods to use in their prawn farming or sold to others in the industry. Even though CP Foods is specifically called out in this article, it is clear that the slavery is so widespread that no matter what Thai seafood product you buy, it will have been touched by slavery at some point along the supply chain.
The Thai government estimates that 300,000 people work in their fishing industry, with a great majority of that number being migrants that are susceptible to being forced into slavery. Thailand has a huge problem with human trafficking and has been warned by the US for several years about the situation and now risks damaging their trade status with the US as a result of not making effective efforts to change the situation. The Thai government, of course, claims that they are making efforts and have made progress on tackling the human trafficking and slavery problem. However, The Guardian found that the fishing industry is largely lawless and unregulated and run by the Thai mafia and other criminals. All of this goes on with the aid of Thai officials and the brokers that find the workers that are sold into slavery. Human rights activists have stated that they believe Thailand’s seafood-export industry would most likely collapse without slavery, which means that there is little incentive for the Thai government to act. As a result, they have called for consumers and international retailers to demand action.
Several retailers have joined a new initiative called Project Issara (Project Freedom) to discuss how they should respond to the problems in the Thai seafood industry. Many of the retailers also attended a meeting with the industry leaders in Bangkok at the end of last month at which slavery was discussed.
Here’s how CP Foods’ responded to The Guardian: “CP said in a statement that it believed the right thing was to use its commercial weight to try to influence the Thai government to act rather than walk away from the Thai fishing industry, although it is putting in place plans to use alternative proteins in its feed so that it can eliminate Thai fishmeal by 2021 if necessary. It said it had already tightened controls over the way its fishmeal is procured. While it recognises that workers on boats are exploited, it added that the Thai department of fisheries continues to deny that unregistered boats are a problem. “We can do nothing, and witness these social and environmental issues destroy the seas around Thailand, or we can help drive improvement plans. We are making good progress,” it said.
Costco has agreements with all suppliers to prohibit use of slave labor and other violations of labor law. They conduct audits of their direct suppliers, so in this case, CP Foods, to determine working conditions. However, I think it would be hard for Costco to know how far back in the supply chain to investigate to find such problems, which would not be apparent in a visit to a supplier that is not directly engaged in illegal labor practices.
“We are committed to working with our suppliers of Thai shrimp to require them to take corrective action to police their feedstock sources with respect to poor labor practices,” said Costco. “This commitment so far has involved visits by our buying staff to Thailand and discussions with the Thai government, our suppliers, and other industry participants.”
Walmart and Tesco have taken a similar stance to the problem as Costco, stating that it is important for them to stay involved with the Thai seafood industry so that they can help/force the suppliers to enact change. It is a deplorable situation, but one that needs the outside influence, I think, of these huge companies if anything is to really change. It is clear that the Thai government has been, if not directly supportive, at least complicit in furthering this situation and does not have the interest in changing the industry with strict enforcement and regulation. Of course, the recent coup in Thailand cannot be helping the situation either. With so much unrest in the country, will there be anyone interested in fixing the seafood industry slavery problems?
For more information: