Report highlights labor abuses in shrimp industry

WASHINGTON, April 23 (Reuters) - Abuse of workers including children and migrants is rife in the shrimp-processing industries of key global suppliers Thailand and Bangladesh, a U.S. labor rights group said on Wednesday.

Solidarity Center, an organization allied with the AFL-CIO labor federation, called for the industry and governments throughout the popular seafood’s global supply chain to step up labor law enforcement and tighten safety and health standards.

The center’s researchers cataloged abuses in world shrimp-industry leader Thailand and in fast-rising newcomer Bangladesh. Thailand exported $1.3 billion worth of shrimp to the United States in 2006, while Bangladesh exported $200 million to rank ninth on a list of U.S. sources.

“As both countries’ shrimp industries have boomed and become integrated into a massive global shrimp supply chain, low wages, long hours, and unhealthy, hazardous work form the unfortunate foundation of work,” said the report.

Governments in those two Asian developing countries had failed to make their shrimp companies comply with laws and failed to prosecute employers found abusing workers rights, said the 40-page study.

“Reports of the worst forms of labor exploitation -- child labor, human trafficking, debt bondage and forced labor -- are increasingly emerging from the shadows,” it said.

In Thailand, workers in shrimp-processing factories earned about $4.60 a day for a six-day work week and excessive hours. Child labor and forced labor were often the norm, the Solidarity Center said.

A striking feature of Thailand’s shrimp industry was the abuse by brokers and smugglers of migrant workers, who often are sold into debt bondage and see their wages stolen. Most laborers are refugees from military-run Myanmar, but the work force also includes Laotians and Cambodians, it said.

Shrimp processing in Bangladesh involved widespread use of subcontracted workers to replace better-paid full-time workers and significant amounts of child labor. Laws governing workers hours and safety conditions are often ignored and promised overtime wages are often not paid, the report said.

In both countries, factories responding to pressure to hold prices down “squeeze wages, neglect workplace health and safety regulations, and cut other corners that leave shrimp workers bearing the social cost of affordable shrimp,” it said.

Thai shrimp were sold under a number of brands in at least nine big U.S. supermarket chains: Costco, Cub Foods, Giant, Giant Eagle, Harris Teeter, IGA, Tops Markets, Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart, the Solidarity Center said.

Guidelines and best practices established by the Aquaculture Certification Council, an agency of the shrimp trade association, focus on water quality and food safety and fail to address labor problems, it said.

“The industry will need to put much more work into the effort, particularly as governments and international media continue to uncover reports of human trafficking, persistent child labor, and sweatshop conditions,” the report said. (Reporting by Paul Eckert, editing by Philip Barbara)