MAHACHAI, Thailand — At an age when she should have been in a classroom, Thazin Mon discovered her knack for peeling shrimp. To help support her Burmese migrant family, the 14-year-old pulled 16-hour shifts, seven days a week, for less than $3 a day. “I am uneducated, so I work. I have to work bravely,” she says.
Although she was the best peeler in the factory, speed was never enough. Mon was beaten if she slowed down, she said, and when she asked for a day off to rest hands swollen with infection, her boss kicked her and threatened rape.
Thanks to a bottomless appetite for cheap shrimp in the West, Burmese migrants such as Mon are the backbone of a Thai shrimp industry that is the world’s third largest. The United States is Thailand’s top customer, accounting for a third of the country’s annual shrimp exports.
Rights groups say that overseas demand for shrimp products in greater volume has fueled a culture of exploitation in the Thai industry. They insist that the failure of foreign companies to sufficiently verify the origin of the shrimp they import allows abuses to persist.
“If you look at the cost of shrimp overseas, it’s very, very cheap, and that comes from the exploitation inherent in the shrimp industry,” says Andy Hall, an expert on migration at Mahidol University who tracks Burmese labor in the Thai seafood industry.
Brisk business with major U.S. retailers such as Wal-Mart, Costco, Sam’s Club and Red Lobster pumps more than $1 billion in revenue each year into the Thai economy, the second largest in Southeast Asia. As Thai living standards have risen, a shortage of unskilled labor has attracted tens of thousands of Burmese migrants looking to escape the poverty and job scarcity that has gripped their homeland for decades.
Most head to Samut Sakhon province, the heart of the processing industry just south of the capital, Bangkok, where modern facilities line the highway alongside fast-food chains and car dealerships. The more prominent factories are the size of football fields, with neon signage and billboards that feature smiling children. But there’s a darker side behind the scenes, activists say.
Of an estimated 400,000 migrants at work in the province, only about 70,000 are legally registered. The rest are employed illegally in anonymous peeling sheds that supply the larger companies that must fill massive orders from abroad. At this lower end of the supply chain, according to migrant activists, crooked brokers and employers trap scores of Burmese in abusive conditions tantamount to slavery, particularly in the shrimp industry.
“The small factory owners know that most of their workers are undocumented, so they can control the workforce however they want — such as locking workers in until they finish their work,” says Sompong Sakaew, a labor activist based in Mahachai, the provincial capital. “There are also teenagers between 12 and 17 years old in the workforce.”
Problems for Burmese migrants typically start as soon as they link up with brokers who promise steady work and a decent salary, only to sell them into a nearly inescapable cycle of debt bondage.
Min Oo, 28, a Burmese farmer who lost his home in a flood, said he paid a broker the equivalent of $500 to smuggle him across the border to Samut Sakhon, with the guarantee of a minimum-wage (about $10 a day) factory job. Instead, he said, the broker sold him into a waking nightmare, with 18-hour workdays in a shrimp-processing factory and net earnings of no more than $20 a week, leaving almost nothing to send home.
In some cases, migrant workers and rights groups allege, police officials or their relatives hold an ownership stake in unregistered peeling sheds. More commonly, the critics say, the authorities or those they protect shake down undocumented workers for bribes to supplement their incomes, knowing that the migrants would rather pay up on the spot than be deported to Burma.
Despite occasional police action and robust anti-trafficking laws, Sakaew, the labor activist, estimates that fully a quarter of the 1,200 to 1,300 factories in Samut Sakhon province are unregistered and, therefore, ripe for abuse. With so much profit-induced apathy on the Thai side, activists say reform pressure must come from Western companies whose trade partnerships drive the shrimp industry.
It is difficult to establish precise links between the larger Thai companies that process shrimp of dubious origin and the Western companies whose consumers increasingly demand ethical sourcing.
To do business overseas, Thai companies must qualify for membership in the Thai Frozen Foods Association, which adheres to globally recognized codes of conduct and carries out unscheduled inspections. Spokesman Arthon Piboonthanapatana asserts that anyone found guilty of labor abuses would be expelled. In more than three years of inspections, he said, this has never happened.
“If the shrimp is from TFFA members, I can 100 percent guarantee” that it is produced without labor exploitation, he said.
But critics say that until the Thai shrimp industry requires larger factories to provide records of lower-level suppliers and follows through with random inspections, the shrimp it exports will remain tainted by human trafficking and labor abuses.
For the past three years, the State Department has given Thailand a poor grade on human trafficking, citing it among countries that do not fully comply with the minimum standards for efforts to combat the problem.
After the release of the department’s report in 2012, Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said his country would improve its performance by strengthening cooperation among agencies tasked with fighting human trafficking.
Motlagh reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.