The catch of the day you ordered for dinner journeyed an unfathomably long way to your table: Your shellfish might have been netted on the Indian ocean, but the workers who hauled it ashore were trafficked from impoverished Southeast Asian villages onto black-market fishing vessels off the Thai coast. The lucrative fishstocks were likely then channeled through a pipeline of bribed corrupt officials. The hands that pack your crabs belong to guest workers imported from Mexico to Bayou processing plants, to work their fingers raw for a season and get shipped home, sometimes missing thousands of dollars in back wages, or maybe a finger.
But while you chow down, activists are tracing the global “seafood value chain” from coastline to production line, presenting fresh research by National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) at an International Labour Organization (ILO) conference in Geneva on global supply-chain labor.
The maritime industry has always been awash in labor abuse. Neoliberal trade winds and labor migration have driven transnational exploitation, while rising seafood consumption has made it one of the world’s most profitable, and dangerous, commodities.
Seafood production runs on a churning surplus of precarious, “contingent” migrant labor. It often starts on Southeast Asian coastlines, where seafood exports, according to media and official investigations, are fueling a smuggling trade that channels workers into extreme violence and exploitation. Migrants “as young as 15 years old…may be trafficked across borders and forced to work aboard ships,” according to researchers. “They typically do not speak the language of their Thai captains, do not know how to swim and are therefore entirely captive.” In processing and distribution onshore, gender segmentation of the workforce maximizes vulnerability (sexual harassment and piecework wages for women, brutal debt bondage in captivity for men).
Even in the US, unregulated processors traffic in human chattel as fluidly as they trade in fancy seafood. Though processors use both documented and undocumented workers, all migrants typically suffer devastating poverty and discrimination, isolated by “gender, linguistic isolation, geographic isolation, race,” and immigration status.
Facing constant threat of deportation and abuse, migrants are often too fearful to stand up to the boss to ask for bathroom breaks at work, let alone to demand a living wage. This industrial structure prevents workers from organizing to establish their rights, and their unstable domicile prevents them from building workplace and community links that have historically been integral to growing labor power.