By Rebecca Benest
Slavery today is often seen as a historical concept; one of mankind’s unfortunate mistakes, but not something we’re faced with today. Personally, the word brings back images of the Atlantic slave trade from history classes, or films portraying stories of biblical times. Slavery as an ancient concept, unfortunately, is simply not true: More people are enslaved today than at any other point in human history. Furthermore, while the methods and purposes vary, modern slavery is not separated from our “civilized” societies. Much of our food and clothing is a product of slavery, and most recently, this has been connected to the fishing trade.
The illegal fishing trade is run on ‘slaveships’, large ships kept out at sea for several months, even years, at a time. The workers, or slaves, held on the ships are generally from Southeast Asia and from western Africa; while not kidnapped, many were promised pay and a good job before getting sold to international fishing companies. When the Environmental Justice Foundation investigated a South Korean slaveship in 2010, they found men working 18-hour days in temperatures of over 100° F, living in spaces less than a meter high, and without clean water to drink or bathe in.
Since the ships stay in open waters, they can be harder to find and investigate. The ships also often re-flag and change their name to avoid detection. When they are inspected, however, most carry a license to import fish into the EU, UK, and US, meaning that they have passed reportedly strict sanitation and health standards. This also means the seafood has made its way into our grocery stores.
More recently, in June of 2014, a six-month investigation into illegal fishing in Thailand found an immense and growing slave trade, with estimates of half a million people enslaved. CP Foods, the main manufacturing company for seafood in Thailand, has an annual turnover of over $33 billion and is the main supplier of shrimp for some of the leading international supermarkets, such as Costco and Tesco. Men who escaped from CP Foods ships now tell their stories: once sold for as low as $300, they report sufferings of regular beatings and executions of other slaves while they were forced to watch.
The Thai government has addressed its plans to help reduce the slave economy, and supermarkets have put in place strict policies to avoid companies in the slave trade. The supply, and demand, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have lowered by any measurable statistics. Yet on the part of the individuals, the consumers, we can make a significant difference. Simply aiming to buy products produced locally, or by companies that enforce standards for labor, will show a demand for better conditions. The website productsofslavery.org shows a map of the world with areas most commonly known for enslavement of workers and the products they produce. Most importantly, this is an issue that needs to enter into the discourse. With critical analysis of the social, political, and economic context of our consumer products, we as a society can start to evaluate if a new shirt is worth where it came from.
Photo by Bruno Casonato