Report: Abuse plaques foreign shrimp operations

Published 10:39 pm Saturday, April 26, 2008

A new report alleging widespread worker abuse at shrimp farms and plants in Thailand and Bangladesh gives shrimpers in Louisiana a new argument to use in their campaign to get consumers to buy shrimp caught in U.S. waters.

Solidarity Center, a workers rights organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO, reported this week that beatings, torture, child labor, sweatshop wages and hazardous working conditions were uncovered in shrimp farms and production facilities in Thailand and Bangladesh. Thailand is the top shrimp importer to the United States; Bangladesh is ninth.

The center’s “The True Cost of Shrimp” found similar conditions to those reported in the garment and apparel industries in Asia during the 1990s, which led to a public outcry and stronger U.S. standards on imports.

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The Solidarity Center report included interviews with workers at shrimp farms and processing centers who complained that migrant workers were kept as virtual slaves. It found allegations of beatings, torture, sexual assault and unlawful imprisonment.

Shifts of 16 to 20 hours, six days a week, were common, according to the report.

In Thailand, workers said they earned $4.60 a day. In Bangladesh, reported salaries were less than $30 a month.

“Ninety percent of people shop price, but to me you got to shop quality and consider how you produce shrimp at such low prices,” said Pete Gerica of eastern New Orleans who shrimps in Lake Pontchartrain. “This report to me shows you should buy American.”

U.S. shrimpers have won anti-dumping tariffs against Thailand, Vietnam and China but say that foreign shrimp continues to undercut prices by avoiding the environmental, labor and tax obligations that the domestic industry faces.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., asked President Bush to immediately embargo imports of processed shrimp from Thailand and Bangladesh.

Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, which represents shrimp importers, said it’s important to investigate all the allegations of worker abuse and that his members are committed to a zero-tolerance policy for mistreatment.

“We need to have the governments of Thailand and Bangladesh investigate the allegations,” Gibbons said. “If it turns out there are some bad actors in the region, they need to be prosecuted by the authorities that are there. But certainly the whole industry shouldn’t be tainted.”

Kim Chauvin, co-owner of Mariah Jade Shrimp Co. in Chauvin, said the report should lead consumers to carefully consider what it takes to produce shrimp at such low prices.

“I’m flabbergasted that people don’t realize that this stuff is going on in these countries to get this cheap, inferior product to them,” Chauvin said.

Galliano resident Margaret Curole, a former shrimper now with the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers, said the report should prompt consumers to think about more than price alone.

“You might be saving 50 cents, maybe even a dollar, but if there are human rights abuses, wouldn’t you be better of paying a little bit more?” Curole said.