In Sydney, where I live, the disparity of price between local and imported seafood is dramatic.

I grew up in a little seaside town south of the city where the fish and chips shop sits right next to the fisherman’s boats.

I’ve been mystified how it can be cheaper to catch a fish in South-East Asia and fly it here, frozen, than to just catch it in the ocean nearby and pass it to the fish markets.

Well it turns out that the Australian fishing industry has high safety standards; people working on the boats are supplied with personal protective equipment. They are also paid much, much higher wages than workers in Bangladesh and Thailand and whilst labour costs are only a small part of production costs, the difference is more than enough to pay for the fishes’ airfares.

So far there is nothing controversial about this. However America’s Solidarity Center has singled out the shrimp (aka prawn!) industry as being particularly harsh to workers. They have seen none of the advances that have been won in apparel and footwear in the past decade and a half.

80% of the shrimp eaten in the USA is imported and nearly all of it is harvested through aquaculture rather than being caught in the wild. Over 40% of Thailand’s shrimp is processed in the port of Mahachai.

Photo: Reuters

Working conditions in Mahachai range from poor to appalling. In a (rare) police raid in 2006, it was discovered that one factory, Ranya Paew, was literally imprisoning its mostly Burmese workers in squalid conditions. Workers who angered the employer were ‘put to shame’ in front of the employer by having their hair cut off. Women and girls were stripped naked and publicly beaten as a form of discipline.

The extremely high density of these farms can indirectly affect the nearby community too. High density biomass of shrimp leads to high density waste which leads to disease outbreaks and parasite infestations. An outbreak of cholera in Ecuador that killed 10,000 people was traced to a virus strain which developed as a result of the heavy use of antibiotics in the local shrimp farming industry.

The only good news so far is that America’s Aquaculture Certification Council has developed a Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) guideline which gives a consistent standard for big retailers to adopt. This is helpful to them, too, as it establishes a level playing field at the point of sale. Worker protections are included in the BAP, although these do fall short of the internationally adopted ILO standards.

The Solidarity Center also used public data to compile a list of U.S. importers who imported shrimp from factories that employed child labour. They were:

  • Aqua Beauty/Charoen Pokphand Foods
  • Eastern Fish Company
  • Fishery Products Interational
  • Great American Seafood Imports
  • H&N Foods/Expack Seafoods
  • Mazzetta Company
  • Ocean Fresh Trading
  • Ocean to Ocean/Icelandic USA
  • Quirch Foods
  • Pacific American Fish
  • Pacific Seafood Group
  • Sterling Seafood
  • Southern Foods USA
  • Tai Foong International

So next time you’re in the frozen section… you might want to read the label.

Source: The True Cost of Shrimp, Solidarity Center report, 2008

25/2: I’ve added a post related to this: Book Review: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

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