Written by Lian Jye

Thailand’s shrimp industry is again at the centre of controversy. Issues involving human trafficking and forced labor has surfaced, following a six-month inquiry into Thailand’s shrimp industry.

In an investigation by The Guardian, it was revealed that low-cost shrimps supplied to the big supermarkets in the US came from an operation that relies on cheap labour. In the midst of all the allegations and the controversy, major international retail brands like Morrisons, Tesco and Costco will have a meeting with the Thai government representatives.

These issues are not new. Back in 2013, Environmental Justice Foundation has published a 31-paged document highlighting human rights abuses within the shrimp industry supply chain. The document recommended the Thai government to demonstrate political will to implement the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (2000), as well as 2010 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ ‘Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking’. The foundation also asked for stronger international monitoring to ensure full transparency and accountability.

In addition to the pressing issue, the US government downgraded Thailand to “Tier 3” in the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. US government believes that Thailand is a “source, destination, and transit country” for human traffickers, based on the report.

The allegation seems to have little impact on the attractiveness of the shrimp industry. The export oriented industry is very lucrative. 80% of the shrimp is exported and consumed in the US, Japan and EU. A cursory check on the shrimp price in US reveals that Thailand shrimp usually commands a higher price compared to other alternatives. For example, Thailand’s Black Tiger is priced at USD 15.80 per kilogram. Vietnam Black Tiger on the other hand, only fetches USD 12.50 per kilogram. Apart from higher topline, the marginal cost of the industry is low due to the abundant cheap labour, especially migrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia seeking better jobs. They contribute to the 90% of the workforce, according to Environmental Justice Foundation.

However, since the publication of the Guardian investigation, certain changes have began to occur. Due to the military coup, nearly 200,000 Cambodian workers have fled Thailand in fear of military action against foreigners. It can be assumed that there will be a decline in the influx of workers from Myanmar. Thailand shrimp producers are also in the midst of recovery from the Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS) that caused a significant drop in shrimp harvesting. Any embargo will lead to shock in demand and may delay the recovery of the industry.

In response to the allegations, the Thai Frozen Food Association tries to counter this issue through active cooperation with the Office of Immigration. A two-year valid visa is required for Myanmar workers, and verification will be conducted regularly. Though the US government mentioned corruption remains rampant among the country’s officials and proper law enforcement is difficult, there might be a new hope with the newly-installed military government.

–Edited by Kristine Diaz

By Ray