The glistening prawns at the supermarket might cost a quite a bit per pound, but off the shore of Thailand, the price of the catch is measured in the bodies of both fish and people. Life is cheap in the labor market that churns out our seafood.
Last year reports emerged about forced labor in the multibillion-dollar Thai fishing industry; image-conscious Western retailers, multinationals and officials promised reform. But while media attention has evaporated, food retailers have returned to their normal routine of scarfing up cheap, seemingly abundant seafood from a murky supply chain.
According to an investigation by the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), the system is rigged so that the market depends on imported ultra-exploited labor, along with unbridled exploitation of Southeast Asia’s fragile marine ecosystem.
The seeds of the crisis were planted back in the 1960s, when Thailand’s fishing industry exploded with the introduction of Western fishery technology. Over-intensification of industrial fishing eventually led to overexploitation, sparking a vicious cycle of Thai trawlers chasing dwindling fish supplies by foraying into neighboring countries’ waters. Amid lax regulation and endemic corruption, underground and pirate fishing operations metastasized, spawning a massive, violent maritime gangland. Today, while native Thai workers move away from the grueling low-wage labor of industrial fishing, migrants from poorer countries are drawn onto minimally regulated vessels and now make up roughly 80 percent of the industry’s estimated 145,000 workers.
Though Asian countries have instituted labor regulations for migrant workers, such as wage and hours protections and oversight of labor recruitment, as well as regional labor accords governing migrants’ legal rights, both state regulators and organized labor have only limited reach among the poorest workers, and victims often lack legal recourse.