(Recasts with U.S. diplomat, labor activist, industry reaction)
By Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent
WASHINGTON, April 23 (Reuters) - Abuses of shrimp industry workers in Thailand and Bangladesh constitute “modern-day slavery,” a U.S. official said on Wednesday after a labor group documented poor conditions in those global suppliers.
The Solidarity Center report, “The True Cost of Shrimp,” interviewed workers in the shrimp-processing industry in the two Asian developing countries and found child labor, human trafficking, debt bondage and forced labor as well as failure to pay promised wages.
“Forced labor, child labor and debt bondage: These are forms of modern-day slavery, plainly put,” said Mark Lagon head of the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
“It’s essential that people know with absolute certainty that the flow of shrimp into the U.S. market is tainted by shrimp that’s processed by the hands of those in slavery,” he told a news conference in Washington.
The Solidarity Center, allied with the AFL-CIO labor federation, called on the seafood industry and governments throughout the global shrimp supply chain to step up labor law enforcement and tighten safety and health standards.
Thailand is the world’s shrimp industry leader and the No. 1 source of shrimp for the United States, having exported $1.3 billion worth to the United States in 2006. Fast-rising newcomer 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,” the report said.
In Thailand, workers in shrimp-processing factories earned about $4.60 a day for a six-day work week. Child labor and forced labor were often the norm, the Solidarity Center said.
The Thai shrimp industry saw abuse by brokers and smugglers of migrant workers, mostly those fleeing repression and economic ruin in military-run Myanmar but also workers from Thailand’s poorer neighbors Laos and Cambodia, 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.
Timothy Ryan of the Solidarity Center said his group did not advocate any kind of boycott because the exporting countries needed investment and jobs. He said seafood importers should emulate the footwear and garment industries, which tackled abusive suppliers in Asia in the 1990s.
Lagon also warned that the wrong reaction would bring “collateral damage” to needy workers and urged efforts to promote consumer and industry awareness similar to the campaign to reduce harm to dolphins from the tuna fishing industry.
The National Fisheries Institute “takes accusations of worker mistreatment very seriously,” said spokesman Gavin Gibbons, adding that the nonprofit U.S. seafood industry trade group was not aware of the specific cases in the report.
He warned against “painting the entire industry with a broad brush” because of some “bad actors” and said no U.S. firm was knowingly importing seafood from questionable sources.
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.
Reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by Bill Trott