A six-month investigation by UK newspaper the Guardian has revealed slaves forced to work for no pay for years at a time are being used in Asia for the production of seafood sold by major British, US, and other European retailers.
The report claims that large numbers of men who are ‘bought and sold like animals’ and ‘held against their will’ on fishing boats off Thailand form an essential part of the supply chain in the production of prawns and shrimp that are sold by leading retailers around the world.
"If you buy prawns or shrimp from Thailand, you will be buying the produce of slave labour," Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, told the Guardian.
Investigations by the newspaper found that the world's largest prawn farmer, Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, buys fishmeal, which it feeds to its farmed prawns, from some suppliers that own, operate or buy from fishing boats manned with slaves.
CP Foods, a company with an annual turnover of $33bn (€24bn) sells its own-brand prawn feed to other farms, and supplies international supermarkets, as well as food manufacturers and food retailers, with frozen or cooked prawns and ready-made meals. It also sells raw prawn materials for food distributors.
CP Foods admits that slave labour is part of its supply chain, said the Guardian.
"We're not here to defend what is going on," said Bob Miller, CP Foods' UK managing director. "We know there's issues with regard to the [raw] material that comes in [to port], but to what extent that is, we just don't have visibility."
Supermarkets implicated in the report – because they sell products sourced from CP Foods - include Walmart, Carrefour, Tesco, and Costco. The Guardian also identifies UK-based retailers Aldi, Morrisons, the Co-operative and Iceland as customers of CP Foods.
"We'd like to solve the problem of Thailand because there's no doubt commercial interests have created much of this problem," Miller admitted to the Guardian.
Industry action and reaction
"Global brands and retailers can do so much good without bringing too much risk upon themselves by simply enforcing their supplier standards, which typically prohibit forced labour and child labour," Lisa Rende Taylor of Anti-Slavery International said.
"And if local businesses realise that non-compliance results in loss of business, it has the potential to bring about huge positive change in the lives of migrant workers and trafficking victims."
The Guardian also asked supermarkets implicated in selling the products to comment its finding – with all replying that they condemn slavery and human trafficking for labour.
A statement from CP Foods said it believed the right thing was to use its commercial weight to try to influence the Thai government to act rather than walk away from the Thai fishing industry, though it added that the firm is putting in place plans to use alternative proteins in its feed so that it can eliminate Thai fishmeal by 2021 if needed.
The Thai supplier added that it had already tightened controls over the way its fishmeal is procured.
Walmart, the world's largest retailer, said: "We are actively engaged in this issue and playing an important role in bringing together stakeholders to help eradicate human trafficking from Thailand's seafood export sector."
Meanwhile, Carrefour said it conducts social audits of all suppliers, including the CP factory that supplies it with some prawns. It tightened up the process after alerts in 2012. It admitted that it did not check right to the end of its complex chains.
A Tesco spokesperson said: "We regard slavery as completely unacceptable. We are working with CP Foods to ensure the supply chain is slavery-free, and are also working in partnership with the International Labour Organisation [ILO] and Ethical Trading Initiative to achieve broader change across the Thai fishing industry."
Costco told the Guardian that it would require its suppliers of Thai prawn "to take corrective action to police their feedstock sources", while Morrisons said it would take the matter up with CP urgently.