Perhaps you’ve heard of conflict diamonds – gems mined under dubious political and humanitarian circumstances in war-torn regions – but what about conflict shrimp? New reports show that migrant workers are being bought and sold as slave labor to work on Thai fishing boats. Kojo explores murky supply chains, human trafficking, and the human and ethical cost of cheap seafood.


  • Matthew Pennington Reporter on U.S. Asian Affairs, the Associated Press
  • Luis CdeBaca Ambassador At Large, Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department
  • Cheryl Dahl Founder, Future of Fish


  • 13:31:23

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a hidden cost of cheap seafood. When you walk up to the frozen food aisle at your grocery store you'll see rows of neat little bags of frozen shrimp and fish fillets. Most of the packages will tell you how much the fish weighs, how to grill or sauté it and it might even tell you what country it came from. What it won't tell you is about the work conditions of the people who caught it and prepped it before it was frozen. Many of those bags come from Thailand, the world's third largest exporter of seafood.

  • 13:31:51

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd a series of news reports about that country's seafood industry revealed disturbing human rights violations happening on its fishing boats, including human slavery and in some cases executions. In fact, last week the U.S. State Department downgraded Thailand in a major report on human trafficking. Joining us in studio to discuss this is Matthew Pennington. He's a reporter on U.S. Asian Affairs for the Associated Press. Matthew, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:32:17

    MR. MATTHEW PENNINGTONThank you, Kojo.

  • 13:32:18

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Luis CdeBaca, who is ambassador at large in the Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department. Luis CdeBaca, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:32:29

    MR. LUIS CDEBACAGood afternoon.

  • 13:32:29

    NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios at WBEZ in Chicago is Cheryl Dahl, founder of the Future of Fish. Cheryl, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:32:38

    MS. CHERYL DAHLThank you for having me.

  • 13:32:39

    NNAMDIAnd I'll start with you, Cheryl Dahl. When we go into our grocery stores we might not think about where the food comes from. But with shrimp and other seafood it might be impossible to actually find the source. Why is the seafood supply chain so hard to follow?

  • 13:32:53

    DAHLWell, there's several reasons. I think one is that if you look at these global supply chains there's lots of steps, lots of layers, lots of brokers. And if you think about how fish is put together to fill an order, one order is going to be much larger than the catch of any one boat. And so as this fish gets aggregated and put together, some of the details about where that fish came from tend to get lost. And some of that is also due to illegal fishing.

  • 13:33:19

    DAHLSo about 90 million metric tons of fish is landed, wild catch every year and about 25 percent of that is caught illegally, meaning that there's not a legal quota for it or a legal license. And in order to get that illegal fish into the legal supply chain, bad technology and bad logistics help.

  • 13:33:38

    NNAMDIYou talk about the concept, Cheryl, of mystery fish. Take us through the journey that a piece of shrimp goes through from ocean to restaurant.

  • 13:33:47

    DAHLWell, in the case of this issue in Thailand, the shrimp is actually farmed. So the supply chain's actually even more complex than a wild-harvested fish in that what these farm shrimp are fed is fish meal that's harvested at sea. So typically the way that's going to begin is a large commercial trawler that goes out into the ocean in high seas for months or potentially years at a time. And originating from a port in Thailand or other places where there is a huge human trafficking component, often a bulk of those fishermen who are on board are forced labor indentured servants.

  • 13:34:23

    DAHLSo what gets caught on that boat gets then brought back eventually. It's processed on deck. And so these boats don't have to come in very often, so they're not checking into ports. They're not monitored very well. Once that ship is offloading its fish potentially at sea or finally at a port, then that gets moved through different brokers and processed and turned into fish meal and then turned into pellets and then sold to the shrimp farm.

  • 13:34:50

    DAHLSo the issue is not just the shrimp farms supply chain but the supply chain of its suppliers. So you start to see how many steps are involved and where things get very complex.

  • 13:34:59

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you'd like to join the conversation with a comment or question. Besides price, what else matters to you when making a purchase? Is it possible to always buy ethically? How do you vote with your dollars? Are there any companies whose products you won't buy? Which ones and why? Where do you draw the line as a customer, 800-433-8850? You can send email to or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow.

  • 13:35:26

    NNAMDILuis, Thailand is not some small obscure regional player. This is one of the biggest economies in Southeast Asia. It doesn't just export seafood but a whole range of goods. The U.S. recently downgraded Thailand in its latest trafficking in persons report giving the country the same rating as North Korea, same as Iran. Why did the State Department lower Thailand's grade?

  • 13:35:49

    CDEBACAYou know, one of the things that we look at every year is what are governments doing to prevent trafficking, to protect trafficking victims and to prosecute those who would enslave them? And in looking at that with Thailand, while we did see some increased efforts over the last year on fighting sex trafficking, which I think many of your listeners may think is kind of the stereotype of what they think of when they think of human trafficking, especially in Thailand.

  • 13:36:17

    CDEBACAThere weren't those same efforts in the foreign migrant population, often Burmese, several million in Thailand and many of them in the fishing industry. What we saw, for instance, was a -- once case in which a recruiter was brought to justice, got 30 years in prison. That was the Burmese coconspirator. The Thai coconspirator ended up getting three months for harboring illegal aliens. Well, how was he harboring those illegal aliens? He had 14 Burmese guys locked up on the dock that he ran and was using them on the boats.

  • 13:36:56

    CDEBACASo one of the things that we're looking at is what is the government actually doing to bring those guys to justice? Here's one of the steps. It's not the only step but it's one of the steps in cleaning up this particular supply chain.

  • 13:37:08

    NNAMDIYou mentioned coconspirators, you mentioned 14 people. But can you give us a broader sense of scale? How many workers are being trafficked and how much money is the seafood industry producing in Thailand?

  • 13:37:20

    CDEBACAWell, the seafood industry in Thailand, the estimates are somewhere between 6 and $7 billion. It's hard for us to say with any specificity as to exactly what percentage of those people of that 2 million or so Burmese migrants. But some of the data that we've been able to get through the United Nations, there was an intelligence project that they were doing in Southeast Asia recently called (word?) . They did random surveys and talked to a lot of folks. And 54 percent of the foreign migrants that they talked to who had been on fishing boats had seen a murder by the captain or the officers of one of their cohorts.

  • 13:38:03

    CDEBACASo this anecdotal evidence -- it's good anecdotal evidence -- of just the widespread violence on it. We haven't necessarily been able to back that out as to a hard percentage.

  • 13:38:14

    NNAMDIMatthew, you spent several years in Thailand as a reporter. There's been a lot of talk about the treatment of migrant workers there. And a lot of the workers on those fishing boats are indeed from other countries. Can you talk a little bit about that and about how migrant workers are treated in Thailand in general?

  • 13:38:31

    PENNINGTONWell, for many years migrant workers have been important for the Thai economy as a source of cheap labor working in low-income factories, as agricultural laborers, on construction sites and in the sex trade and also in the fishing industry. And these are often jobs that Thai people don't want to do. And the Burmese and Cambodians who do these jobs do them for very low wages which cuts the cost of the producers. There are thought to be about 2 to 3 million of these migrants in Thailand.

  • 13:39:12

    NNAMDIThere are reports of workers being bought and sold like property to fish on these boats. To what extent is that true and how do people end up in that situation? What's life like once they're actually on the boats?

  • 13:39:29

    PENNINGTONWell, perhaps I can give you an example. This is based on some reporting by colleagues of mine in Thailand and Indonesia. One of our reporters spoke to a migrant who was in his early 20's. When he was just only 17 he sneaked across the border from Burma into Thailand. He got a job on a fishing boat through a labor broker. And he was under the impression it would be a six-month contract. But when he got on the boat, he basically found there was no way off. And he ended up in international waters. And he ended up on the boat for three-and-a-half years.

  • 13:40:08

    PENNINGTONHe would come into port every couple of months but there was no way he could get off the boat. And he endured some very harsh conditions. He said that he had to work 20-hour shifts. When he was sick he was threatened with being thrown overboard. I don't think he actually saw anyone who had been killed by a ship captain, but one of his coworkers was -- got sick and he dies and he was dumped overboard.

  • 13:40:43

    NNAMDIAre there any indications at all about whether he was compensated?

  • 13:40:49

    PENNINGTONWell, he said for the first year he was on t he boat he got no pay at all. He'd been sold by a broker for the equivalent of about $600. And it seemed that he was paying off that as a kind of debt. And then after that first year he started being paid about $90 every two months. But after three-and-a-half years on the boat he got very sick. He started coughing up blood. He had tuberculosis. And he was contemplating suicide but he managed to sneak away when he went to port in Ambon, Indonesia. And he got away. He was taken under the wing of an Indonesian family. And eventually he was able to be repatriated to Burma.

  • 13:41:34

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Who do you think is most responsible for stopping slave labor in Thailand, customers who buy the fish, retailers who sell it or is it the government's job to regulate or all of the above? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to Here is Mary in Silver Spring, Md. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:42:01

    MARYYes. Well, thank you very much for helping to bring to light this very horrible problem. Another reason why it's so difficult to trace seafood is because of mislabeling. An average of 30 percent of the seafood sold in North America is said to be mislabeled. There are just so many problems with seafood, human slavery, animal suffering, human health hazards. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, the latest analysis of food borne outbreaks found out seafood is by far the most hazardous food to eat.

  • 13:42:32

    MARYEnvironmental destruction, it's best just to opt instead for the many better alternatives to it which, if you love seafood, there's vegan seafood. And in fact on our website we have tons of recipes and let you know about products that are available and so many reasons why we should -- instead of exploiting fish, be respecting and appreciating and protecting it.

  • 13:42:54

    NNAMDICheryl Dahl, to which you say...

  • 13:42:57

    DAHLWell, I think there are ways to consume fish and do it responsibly. I'd say that the first thing to look at is that here in the U.S. we import about 90 percent of our fish. Meanwhile we have domestic fisheries that are very well regulated and where there are economies that depend on the fishing industry where that fish is not finding markets. So there are ways to look at, first of all, buying domestically. Second, looking for fish that has a story.

  • 13:43:21

    DAHLSo if a restaurant can tell you the name of the boat, the name of the fisher that caught it, it's a shortened supply chain. It means that they are tracking data and they're actually making an effort to look for fish that has been resourced responsibly. And then I think the last thing is to think about where you can start to add pieces of this to your diet that are looking at fish domestically.

  • 13:43:48

    NNAMDICheryl, are there any retailers that do not sell seafood associated with human tracking (sic) ? A lot of consumers who are listening to this may want to avoid buying the fish that are produced in this way.

  • 13:44:02

    DAHLThere are currently no retailers who can verify that they don't have illegal fish or fish that has trafficking involved in it. Mainly because the supply chains are so complex and there's so much mislabeling. As your caller indicated, up to a third of all seafood is mislabeled in the U.S. And that means that no matter where you're buying it, whether it's at a sushi restaurant or at a grocery store, there are significant chances that that information is inaccurate.

  • 13:44:28

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation. We're calling it the high cost of cheap seafood, inviting your calls at 800-433-8850 or email to Or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. With global markets, is it possible to stop companies from abusing workers? How far will you go to make sure your shrimp, clothes or electronics for that matter are conflict-free? Give us a call. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:46:35

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the sources of seafood that might be the result of slave labor involvement. We're talking with Cheryl Dahl, founder of the Future of Fish. Luis CdeBaca who is ambassador at large of the Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department and Matthew Pennington who is a reporter on U.S. Asian affairs for the Associated Press. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to Let me go to Christiana in Rockville, Md. Christiana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:47:11

    CHRISTIANAHi, Kojo. thank you for taking my call. Goodness, that was a harrowing story on the human tracking. Thank you so much for sharing that. I've been, for years, just buying my seafood at the Frederick Common Market which is a food cooperative at the co-op in Tacoma Park. And then of course we have things like Mom's Organic Market. I put my faith into that the sourcing of those seafood products is actually more ethical. Am I right with that or how much window dressing is that?

  • 13:47:45

    CHRISTIANAThe other question I have is closer to home. We know some things about the crab meat pickers here on the eastern seashore who are often also held on the harsh living conditions and working conditions. Can you shed some light on that?

  • 13:48:00

    NNAMDIFirst the question of sourcing, Cheryl Dahl.

  • 13:48:04

    DAHLSo I would say that yes, buying fish from a community-supported fishery or CSF locally is typically a way to ensure that you're getting responsible fish. That fish is going to come from local fishers and is typically domestic. I would say that not all fish that is labeled domestic is actually domestic. There's been a huge issue with the crab in Maryland where Maryland blue crab is often sold that isn't. It's actually imported from Indonesia. So it's hard to tell where it's coming from unless you have a label like the State of Maryland puts on actual Maryland blue crab. I'm not familiar with some of the labor issues specifically around crab in that state.

  • 13:48:42

    NNAMDIAnd that's a topic we'll have to discuss on another show, but thank you very much for your call. Matthew, now that Thailand has been downgraded to the lowest rating for human trafficking, we'll be looking to see what happens next. Will this downgrade solve the problem?

  • 13:48:59

    PENNINGTONI don't think the downgrade itself will solve the problem but it could be a powerful incentive for Thailand to improve its protection of victims of trafficking and to go after traffickers. I think it remains to be seen how the Thai government will react. It seems that they're taking quite positive approach in the immediate aftermath in saying that they still want to collaborate with the United States. And they want to go after human trafficking. But, you know, the proof of the pudding would be in eating.

  • 13:49:35

    NNAMDILuis, what are the practical impacts of this downgrading for Thailand in terms of its economy in general and its fishing industry in particular?

  • 13:49:45

    CDEBACAWell, I think that the immediate impact is actually the reputational harm. And this is something that we've seen the Thai government expressing a lot of concern about. And something we've seen the Thai press and probably more importantly the Thai Frozen Food Association and the folks in the fishing sector there, very concerned about their global reputation. Not just their exports to the United States.

  • 13:50:06

    CDEBACAI think that what we're seeing is a number of the different buyers, whether it's Costco, whether it's Wal-mart, Tesco, et cetera who are looking at these things. We know that they've reached out to folks who can help them look at their supply chain and actually make some positive changes. What we're hoping is that this creates a upward driver. Now on the other side there's also the possibility of sanctions. The president has 90 days to look at whether there should be any sanctions against any of the countries that are on tier 3 of the report. And we'll certainly be looking at that and we'll be talking to him as to what specifically we think that the president should do.

  • 13:50:46

    NNAMDIBack to the telephones, here now Lori in Gaithersburg, Md. Lori, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:50:53

    LORIMy brother does commercial salmon fishing in Alaska. And, you know, as everyone knows, the demand for salmon -- wild salmon is very high because it's so nutritious. And so the supply is limited. The price is high. And what he said -- excuse me -- there are factory ships in the Pacific that are fishing for the fish that make the imitation crabmeat, I think it's called surimi or something. And in the process, they catch salmon. And they just, you know, they die and they're thrown back and the salmon are essentially wasted. So I wonder if any of your guests can speak to that.

  • 13:51:38

    NNAMDICheryl Dahl, do you know about that?

  • 13:51:40

    DAHLWell, I think the seafood industry at large is -- has a lot of waste going on. So the bi-catch rates for a lot of fish, so meaning you catch unintended species including birds in some cases from particular harvest methods, is a huge issue, bi-catches upwards of 25 million metric tons every year.

  • 13:51:59

    DAHLWhat we can do to be more responsible about purchasing as consumers is to look at what's the catch method. And many of the eco labels that are out there, including Marine Stewardship Council and Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list both look at catch method as one of the ways that they rate seafood. So if you're interested in avoiding situations like that where there's a lot of waste coming from that type of catch method, consult those lists.

  • 13:52:27

    NNAMDIWe reached out to the Thai embassy this morning. The embassy indicated that it was unable to have someone come on to discuss the fish industry today but that at a future date the ambassador would like to come to address these issues. I'm assuming, Luis, that this is one of the issues that the State Department raises with the embassy from time to time.

  • 13:52:48

    CDEBACAIt certainly is and we have actually a pretty good relationship with not just the embassy here but with the actors in Thailand. One of the things that I'd like to stress is that there are a number of good actors in the Thai government that are working hard on this, whether it's in the -- their version of the FBI, the DSI, whether it's in the royal Thai police, the minister of Social Development and Welfare who used to have an NGO that would go to the Gulf and bring back, Thai women who were enslaved as prostitutes or as domestic servants. Last time when I was in Thailand she and I met with a number of men who had been rescued from the fishing industry. So there are good actors within the Thai government.

  • 13:53:28

    CDEBACAThe problem of course is that official complicity, corruption, the large amount of money that's at stake, all of that in some ways is an anchor around their necks on the work that they're trying to do. So we want to continue to work with the Thai so that we can support those good folks who are out there on the frontlines in Thailand.

  • 13:53:44

    NNAMDIMatthew, having covered Thailand for a while, what are your observations of the ability to penetrate what seems to be a very complex operation there?

  • 13:53:54

    PENNINGTONWell, I think the scale of the problem is one thing that makes it very difficult. Also, the economic importance of industries like seafood for Thailand, it's a major world exporter. Also historically the garment industry has been helped with migrant laborers. And these are laborers who have -- on occasion have been registered by Thai authorities. But generally most of them are undocumented. And so there is very little in the way of legal protection for these people.

  • 13:54:30

    PENNINGTONSo if they -- to really address the problem I think migrant laborers need to have the confidence in Thai authorities so they can go and tell them when they are suffering abusive treatment and be confident they will be treated according to law.

  • 13:54:48

    NNAMDICheryl, there are a number of key players here, the companies that produce the seafood in Thailand, retailers who buy it and customers who purchase it in stores. Who do you think is, if you will, most responsible for making a change?

  • 13:55:01

    DAHLMaking a change is going to require commitment from all actors. But I'd say that consumers can absolutely send a message to both the retailers or restaurants that they patronize by asking questions about the seafood and making it clear that this is one of the values on which they're willing to base their purchases.

  • 13:55:17

    DAHLOn the part of retailers, requiring better traceability and requiring verifiable third party traceability is part of what's necessary. And for the middle of the chain, so distributors and processors, figuring out how to implement technology that allows them to track fish and data and deliver a story with the fish is necessary as well. All of these players have to start working in concert.

  • 13:55:41

    NNAMDIWell, with murky supply chains, widespread human rights abuses, it seems extremely difficult to avoid shrimp that's associated with trafficking. What advice would you give to people who want conflict-free seafood?

  • 13:55:54

    DAHLI would say shopping for domestic seafood is one of the best ways to avoid that situation. And domestic seafood is much better regulated in that sense. And I think particularly local seafood. So looking for your local CSF, looking where you can find domestic seafood is probably your best option.

  • 13:56:12

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Sarah who says, "I know Trader Joes has made a big effort towards sustainable seafood. Has it worked and should I feel okay getting my seafood from there," Cheryl?

  • 13:56:24

    DAHLThey did recently move up on Greenpeace's List. Greenpeace does an annual ranking of retailers that sell seafood and talks about who's doing well and who's not. And Trader Joes has definitely moved up that list. And I think Greenpeace is a reliable ranker in that way.

  • 13:56:39

    NNAMDITalk a little bit, if you will -- we're running out of time fairly quickly, Luis, but New Zealand fisheries.

  • 13:56:45

    CDEBACAWell, you know, New Zealand fisheries have a reputation of being one of the most sustainable fisheries on a lot of these lists. And I think that one of the things that we've learned over the last two years, there was a big article in Business Week about this in a study by University of Auckland, that the inspectors who are on the boats that were monitoring the harvest, that are why New Zealand was thought of as having a particularly sustainable fishery, when those inspectors would go to sleep the boat captains and the officers would have their enslaved Indonesian crews throw all the small fish overboard, so that the actual catch was twice as much as what was being reported.

  • 13:57:23

    CDEBACAWhen some of the inspectors on the boats tried to raise concerns about the beatings and even rapes that they'd seen of the crews, the fisheries bosses back in New Zealand told them, that's not your mandate. Your job is to catch fish.

  • 13:57:39

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Luis CdeBaca is ambassador at large in the Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons at the U.S. State Department. Matthew Pennington is a reporter on U.S. Asian affairs for the Associated Press. And Cheryl Dahl is the founder of the Future of Fish. Thank you all for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

Related Links

Topics + Tags


comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows