A special investigation reveals claims of trafficking and slavery in the Thai fishing industry that supplies cheap prawns to supermarkets around the world.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014 - 21:30

Half a million tonnes of prawns are exported from Thailand every year, feeding the increasing hunger for cheap seafood in Australia and around the world.

But a special investigation screened by Dateline reveals the high price being paid by slave labour working in the country's lucrative fishing industry.

Kate Hodal and Chris Kelly from The Guardian spent six months tracing the complex food chain from Thailand's trawlers to the shelves of major supermarkets around the world. 

Products marketed by the Thai-based firm at the centre of the investigation, Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, are available in Australia, including from Coles and Woolworths.

The program speaks with people who say they have been trafficked from countries like Myanmar and Cambodia in search of a better life, but instead were sold into slavery.

They tell of workers spending years on the boats, being abused, tortured and even killed for trying to fight back.

Using undercover filming and speaking to escaped slaves who still fear for their safety, the story reveals the shocking secrets behind the prawn trade.

Apologies, but the story is no longer available for copyright reasons. You can still see the original version on The Guardian's website.

The Seafood Importers Association of Australasia also provided reaction and additional information regarding this story below.

CP Foods Response

Dateline asked CP Foods for its response to the allegations in this story. Here is the company's reply in full...

Response to the Guardian report

The Guardian report alleges serious human rights abuses in offshore fishing vessels, which is extremely concerning for CP Foods as some of the boats in their film were claimed to be the source of fish product supplied to our shrimp feed business. As announced in our letter to The Guardian, we immediately initiated an investigation into every step of our supply chain, far beyond the feed mills, hatcheries and shrimp farms that comprise the scope of the CP Foods shrimp business.

The investigation is ongoing, in partnership with the Thai authorities.  Pending the outcome of these investigations, we have suspended purchasing product for our shrimp feed business from all suppliers except those offering internationally certified, 100% by-product based fishmeal, for which we are able to verify the entire supply chain of all ingredients.

It is important to remember that CP Foods is a producer of farmed shrimp and shrimp feed, we have never been an operator of any fishing vessel.  

Our current investigation is being conducted in coordination with five Thai government agencies. It is a complex task because CPF feed mills source fishmeal from a number of fishmeal factories, who in turn often use agents to buy their raw materials.  The two types of raw material at issue in this case are the trimmings from canning of tuna and other large fish, known as by-product, and the small multi-species fish of little value caught alongside larger fish, known as by-catch. The supply chain for by-product is more easily traced and verified, as it follows the large fish themselves, for which an established chain of custody system exists – the International Fishmeal and Fish oil Organisation’s Responsible Supply scheme.  CPF owns and operates the only IFFO RS Chain of Custody certified shrimp feed mill in the world - the new benchmark for the global shrimp industry.

The allegations of forced labour relate primarily to the by-catch supply chain, and in particular to the large offshore vessels fishing in international waters, which tend to sell their by-catch to trans-shipment boats that combine by-catch from a number of such vessels for delivery and sale at the fishing piers.  

CP Foods current activities

For CP Foods as a whole, our factories have passed regular social audits from our customers for many years, and we are proud of our CSR record both as an employer and in our facilities.  We publish an annual CSR report, which is available on our website. 

CP Foods has been the driver behind the creation of the Thai Sustainable Fisheries Roundtable, which is bringing together all eight seafood industry associations in Thailand to engage directly with the five relevant government agencies and develop a robust Fisheries Improvement Plan to address this issue.  The Coalition will work closely with WWF Thailand and the Sustainable Fisheries Project to develop and implement the Fisheries Improvement Plan, one of the important aims of which is to make the by-catch portion of the supply chain as transparent and auditable as the by-product portion.

A key element in upholding workforce rights is registration of the migrant workforce, since the victims of forced labour are predominantly illegal immigrants.  Since June the Thai Government has been establishing one-stop registration centres across Thailand, each one capable of registering up to 2,500 illegal migrants every day.  On registration the workers receive an identity card, health insurance and the right to work in Thailand for an initial period of 60 days while they are verified for a permanent permit.  As legal workers they will then receive full protection under Thai labour laws.  A number of these centres are located in key coastal towns and specifically focused on registration of the illegal migrant workers in the fishing industry.  Once registered workers will be more traceable to prevent trafficking, and are given helpline details for contacting the authorities in the case of any issues, which as registered workers they are now much more likely and able to do.

As recently reported, we have also now convened a taskforce made up of government agencies, fisheries associations, NGOs and global customers to review and reassure them on our current practices and to agree an action plan for audit and improvement of sustainability for the seafood and fisheries industry in Thailand.

As part of our 10 Point Plan for sustainable fisheries introduced in 2013, CP Foods already pays a premium for Non-IUU (Illegal Unreported, Unregulated) certified fishmeal. As a well-established standard in sustainability, we believe that alongside our other activities, expanding Non-IUU certification to cover working conditions will be an effective measure to combat incidents of forced labour in the fishing industry.

Long-term solutions and commitment to sustainable fishing practices

We continue to believe that the vast majority of those working in the fishing industry are hardworking and honest fishermen making a traditional living in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea. Whilst we are determined to solve this problem and stamp out forced labour, we believe it is vital to also keep alive an honest profession that provides jobs for the millions of people in Thailand that depend on fishing for their livelihood.

We recognise that suspending purchases is not in itself enough to eradicate such practices from the fishing fleets off Thailand in the long term, and we are committed to working in partnership with the Thai Government, seafood associations and international NGOs to ensure an end to forced labour. Despite the fact that the Guardian report has been instrumental in moving this up the agenda for both government and industry, we recognise that wholesale improvement for our industry will be a lengthy and challenging process.  It is a project to which we are absolutely committed.

In the longer term, and at times of high demand for shrimp feed, there is not enough by-product to produce the amount of fishmeal needed by the industry.  This is why CP Foods is working with the Thai Government and Fisheries Associations, together with the Sustainable Fisheries Project and World Wildlife Foundation, to design and implement a Fisheries Improvement Plan to drive more sustainable fishing practices and greater traceability for by-catch.  As announced in the 10 Point Plan in 2013, we are also devoting significant effort to developing alternative protein sources, and we have committed to zero use of non-sustainable fishmeal in our shrimp feed by 2021.

Supermarket Responses

Dateline also asked Coles, Woolworths and IGA to respond to the allegations in this story. Here are their responses in full...

"Coles has an Ethical Sourcing Policy based on international best practice. Our Ethical Sourcing Policy outlines clearly and strongly the standards we expect through our supply chain.

Our ethical sourcing policy requires the provision of a third party ethical audit  to deliver evidence of satisfactory working conditions, including ensuring that employment is freely chosen, also that child and illegal labour shall not be used.

The supplier in question, CP Foods, has advised us of additional measures they have introduced to eliminate the likelihood of forced labour in their supply chains. CP Foods have advised us they have completed the International Labour Organisation’s Good Labour Practices program and are working with the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership and WWF on a fisheries improvement program for Thai fisheries.

We will continue to closely monitor the situation and take immediate action if required."

"Woolworths is concerned by reports of use of slave labour in the region. We are aware that the use of slave labour is an issue in Thailand with people from poorer neighbouring countries migrating to Thailand for work. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Thai Government together with western buying companies are working together to improve the situation. It is a problem that's bigger than one company and needs government, local industry and buying brands to work together in stopping these practices.

In our own brands, Woolworths purchases some prawn products from CP Foods in Vietnam but none in Thailand. These are sold in our seafood cabinet (i.e. behind the glass counter). We have held discussions with CP Foods leadership and understand they have mid to long term comprehensive strategy to ensure that through their entire supply chain they stamp out the use of slave labour.

We will continue to work with all our suppliers to end practices like the use of slave labour that are clearly unacceptable."

A spokesperson for Metcash, which is the wholesale supplier for Independent Grocers of Australia (IGA) stores, issued a statement saying: "I am advised that all CP Foods lines have been deleted and no stock remains in Metcash’s warehouses. Metcash had carried 4 skus of CP Foods products. In June the Guardian’s investigations were shared with Metcash, the 4 skus were deleted nationally and stock eliminated from our warehouses."

Industry Response

Norman Grant from the Seafood Importers Association of Australasia provided the following reaction and additional information regarding this story, although he points out that CP Foods is not a member of the association...

"I would simply like to make a couple of points regarding the scale of the problem; and the broader efforts being made to resolve this situation.
Firstly, as you probably know, literally millions of people regularly cross into Thailand from neighbouring countries to escape economic hardship, political repression, and for their personal safety. The Thai Government accommodates many of those people by granting work permits with limited access to some social services and health care benefits. It does this with little or no assistance from the rest of the world, despite the rest of the world depending on Thailand (and its immigrant labour workforce) for a large proportion of its manufactured goods and food.
Many immigrants (or refugees), especially those that remain illegal entrants, are targeted for exploitation.  Western nations are quick to condemn Thailand for the pace at which it is moving to create systems to prevent this - a gargantuan task for any developed country, let alone a developing country - but offer little real support. (In fairness, the US has supplied some financial assistance). This is a massive social problem for the entire region, with explicit ties to those nations benefiting from Thai manufactured goods or food, and its resolution should be a shared project. In fact, it is left almost entirely to the Thai Government and Thai industry to resolve, under the spotlight of harsh western criticism.
It’s not appropriate for me to comment on the pace of labour reform as there will be people more expert on social issues than myself able to do that. However, as a participant in, and observer of, these reforms, I can say that a great deal of effort has been made by thousands of people in Thailand over the past decade, and a great deal has been achieved. 
The issue has been far broader than the welfare of fishing boat crews, and in those other areas, hundreds of thousands of workers are now in relatively safe workplaces, with relatively good work conditions, under workplace programs that are both monitored and provide the opportunity for continual improvement.
Unfortunately, this progress is rarely reported by NGOs or international media, creating the impression that nothing is being done by Thailand.
In my view, this is counter-productive in that it reduces the incentive for other nations (and markets) to help with the problem; and is unfair to western consumers who might otherwise be pleased to know that their consumption of Thai goods is actually underpinning this massive reform.  A typical reaction to news reports about labour abuse in Thailand is for consumers to assume that they should stop buying those products. In fact, that is the worst possible outcome as it can result in loss of jobs by the very people consumers hope to assist; and deprives Thai industry of both the incentive and essential revenue to fund workplace reform.
The appalling treatment of some fishing boat crews (I am a former commercial fisherman so this is close to my heart) has been a smoldering issue for some years and has been one of the most difficult to address - partly because the offences occur offshore, and it is difficult to trace workers when there is no fixed workplace. It’s also because it is only a small minority of Thai fishermen involved in these practices.
However, remedies have been created and have been steadily implemented over the past few years. I think few people outside Thai Government and industry, and those who work in western seafood markets, are aware of the extent of this work. Whilst the situation is not resolved, it is being focused on.
Every year that I have been involved with Thailand, annual action plans have been developed by government and industry in conjunction with world experts, NGOs and western markets, and it has been my observation that the implementation of those plans has been followed rigorously. I have formed the opinion that the pace of progress reflects the scale and difficulty of the problem rather than any reluctance to address it.
Also in my view, the UN ILO-led GLP has been one of the most successful programs undertaken and I have attached an updated version of the 2014 action plan by the Royal Thai Government where you will see reference to the GLP in several seafood sectors; and also the current the focus on fishing boats. It is purely an oversight document.
You might also gain additional insight from this website.


I think it is a reflection of the success of the broader plan for labour reform that the current issue with CP is about an apparent flaw in a comprehensive system designed to eliminate IUU fish and labour abuse in their aquafeed supply chain, rather than the absence of a system. 
Finally, I note one of the trailers referred to 'the West’s obsession with cheap prawns’.  In fact, the purpose of aquaculture is to provide affordable and sustainable seafood. This is not just semantics.  Western nations in particular suffer chronic public health issues due to the under-consumption of nutrients specific to seafood. The biggest inhibitor of seafood consumption is availability - and consequently, price. Very few food production systems offer the same opportunity for low land use and low environmental impact, low water consumption, low feed-to food conversion, sustainable inputs, etc., than aquaculture - when done correctly. It may be fair criticsim to say it has taken 40 years to define correctly - but we are close. Most mistakes from the past are not being repeated.  A typical shrimp FCR now is one kg food for 1.1kg feed (its much, much higher for other animal proteins); and diets now typically contain less than 15% fish meal/oil. In fact, CSIRO has just invented a very efficient totally fish–free shrimp feed. In due course, it’s likely that the marine component of fish/shrimp feed will come from algae. 

Cheap prawns are not our obsession. Rather, we would prefer to see prawns priced sufficiently high to provide revenues to fund more R&D, better social accountability (environmental, labour, etc) and better marketing. This is opposite to the models in most western countries (that complain about imports) which are usually based on very low production volume and very high prices.  My personal opinion is that the need to feed the world (everyone – not just rich westerners) is a higher imperative than the delight of producing expensive artisanal foods."



Our first story tonight, Prawn Slaves, is a lot closer to home. In fact you can find this product, Authentic Asian Prawn Wonton Soup in supermarkets here, including Coles and Woolworths. It's supplied by Thai-based CP Foods, the world's largest sea food supplier which has a branch in Melbourne. But as you are about to see, CP Foods has purchased fishmeal to feed its prawns from suppliers who source their material from boats which may use slave labour. CP Foods have responded in detail to these claims, as have the supermarket chains. We will have more on that shortly. But now to southern Thailand. The story is narrated by actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

NARRATOR: Benedict Cumberbatch

Late at night, a cargo boat slips into one of Thailand's busiest ports. On board is Vuthy, a man who hasn't seen land in over 18 months.

MAN (Translation): He's coming. He is walking behind the guy in the check shirt.

Like many Thai ports, this is a hub for human trafficking, where an international network of slave traders often buy and sell migrants on to Thailand's illegal fishing boats. And he isn't safe.

MAN (Translation): I want to get him out of here. There are many bad people over there.

The last time he was back on land, he was tricked and sold on to another boat. This time, his freedom has been bought by a local charity, for just £450. Terrified and confused - and unaware that he is free - Vuthy fears that he is about to be trafficking again. Even free, he is still afraid to show his face on camera.

VUTHY, FORMER SLAVE (Translation): Will I have to go back to sea?

MAN (Translation): No, you won't, don't worry. Don't be afraid, they paid to free you. I'm the one who paid to get you out of here. They will send you back home, you can go home now.

A former monk from Cambodia, he was, until today, part of the invisible migrant workforce that props up Thailand's multibillion-dollar prawn industry.

VUTHY (Translation): They kept me chained up, they did not care about me or give me food. He kept me outside in the wind and rain. All the workers were the same as me, we were treated like animals. But we are not animals, we are human beings.

Each year, thousands of migrates pay brokers large sums of money to smuggle them into Thailand, in search of a better life. With his parents struggling to feed six children, Aung Myo left Burma to help provide for his siblings.

AUNG MYO (Translation): The broker told me how much I'd get if I worked in Thailand. It was an easy job, he said.

After his mother died, Kyaw was abandoned by his father. He lived as a pagoda boy until he left rural Burma as a teenager.

KYAW (Translation): I figured that I'd save some money, go back to Myanmar, get married and start a family.

AUNG MYO (Translation): I risked my life to come here, the journey was awful, it took seven days. If we were too tired to walk, they would kick us and torture us to force us on. Somehow we found the strength to keep going, some people died on the way and some were left behind. We were told to lie down on the floor of the trucks in rows - three men stacked on top of one other. I was at the bottom and I could not breath - I thought I was going to die.

KYAW (Translation): It was only after we drove out towards the boats that one of the guys with us who had been trafficked before said, "œDo you see those boats? We have been sold." I just stared, I was so depressed, I wanted to die.

Official Thai figures estimate there are up to 300,000 people working in the Thai fishing industry. The vast majority of these are migrants - only a fraction are registered. The rest are ghosts. And ghosts are good business for the corrupt brokers, police and Thai officials who prey on them. One high level broker agreed to talk, on condition of anonymity.

BROKER (Translation): If you talk about the police and the brokers, we are more like partners. And we have Thai border officials who help us traffick the migrants through. It's a big chain, and we all have to get paid.

The boat captains pay the brokers around £450 for each worker. But, once on board, the men are forced to work for nothing until they have paid off this debt.

BROKER (Translation): I negotiate directly with the boat owners as long as they are willing to pay my fees, I will arrange to bring the workers over, then the workers have to pay off the debt to the captain. That is how it works.

These men are chattel slaves - trapped miles out at sea, catching the fish that feed Thailand's prawn farming industry. Without them, the industry would collapse. Many of the prawns we eat in the West come from CP Foods' prawn farms and some of their feed contains trash fish. This trash fish is the inedible and infant fish normally thrown away in the West. It's sorted from the rest of the catch and loaded on to large cargo ships which ferry it back to shore. It is turned into fishmeal and becomes part of the fish feed to feed the prawns which CP Foods supply to manufacturers and retailers all over the world.

Thai-owned CP Foods are the largest prawn farmers on the planet. They supply most of the leading supermarkets, including Tescos, Walmart, Morrisons Co-op and Iceland with frozen prawns and ready-made meals. These products come at a low cost for the consumer but a high price for those at sea.

Sleeping in cramped and filthy conditions, many survive on nothing more than one plate of rice a day. The work is backbreaking and dangerous - hauling nets and sorting fish for up to 22 hours a day. With little contact with the outside world, the only escape for many is suicide.

MAN (Translation): He just jumped into the sea right in front of me. I looked at him, he put his hands up; I kept watching him and he sank into the sea. He killed himself, as he'd wanted.

Slaves who rebel are dealt with brutality and publicly as an example to others. One eyewitness recounted what happened to a fellow fisherman who attacked his boat captain.

ZAW MIN (Translation): The other captains came and pinned him down, his hands and legs were tied with ropes to the bows and he was pulled apart by the four boats. That terrified me.

A lucky few escape. After six months on a boat, Aung Myo took his chances and escaped into the night. He was lucky - some slaves never make it back to land and instead are sold from boat to boat for years on end. In a corner of Songkhla Port we found one Burmese migrant back on land for the first time in almost two years. He was to be a vital link in the supply chain, proving the connection between slaves and the prawns on our plate.

BURMESE MIGRANT (Translation): I was cheated and sold by a broker and sent to Kantang, after I realised what had happened I told them I wanted to go back to Burma. They told me I could not go. When I tried to escape, they beat me and smashed all my teeth.

We spoke to a crew member whose cargo boat brought the Burmese slave back to shore.

CREW MEMBER (Translation): There are four fishermen slaves including him on that trawler, the other three are still at sea. We always buy fish from his captain.

To find out where the catch was going, we spoke to the boat captain.

REPORTER (Translation): Does this boat owner have a factory for trashfish?

CAPTAIN (Translation): Yes. This fish came from the factory owner's own boat and they also buy from other boats. They own about ten boats.

REPORTER (Translation): So the owner of the factory owns the boat as well?

CAPTAIN (Translation): Yes, the cargo boats and the trawlers, we always but fish from the cargo boats that buy from the trawlers at sea. We don't sell to normal customers, only to the CP factory.

Then we followed the delivery truck to see which factory it was going to. This was proof that CP are buying fishmeal containing trash fish caught by slaves. Our research found that, whether they had their own boats or not, factories were buying from cargo boats and trawlers - some had slaves, some did not.

CP pays a premium to fishmeal factories that claim to buy trash fish caught by legal and licensed boats. But they never perform independent spot checks and have no idea what is happening out at sea. Even if they did, the fishing licences are easily faked.

REPORTER (Translation): Where do you buy the licenses from?

CAPTAIN (Translation): We use fake licenses.

REPORTER (Translation): Ghost licenses.

CAPTAIN (Translation): We keep the real license on one boat and the fake on the other boats.

REPORTER (Translation): How many boats do you think use fake licenses? How many of them do you think?

CAPTAIN (Translation): Most of the boats.

However, according to Dr Waraporn Prompoj, an international fisheries expert and a government adviser, this problem, she says, is one of the past.

DR WARAPORN PROMPOJ, DEPARTMENT OF FISHERIES: So those who do not have registration, they cannot perform fishing in Thai waters or even in international waters. We don't see that thing to happen in this situation right now. Things changed a lot.

The boat manager explained how the illegal catch and unlicensed vessels get away with it so easily.

REPORTER (Translation): Do these boats get any trouble from the Thai police?

CAPTAIN (Translation): No, they don't. I'm a policeman.

REPORTER (Translation): You are a policeman? Really? Are you still a policeman?

CAPTAIN (Translation): I have many ways to make money, if I am here, the port authorities won't impound the boats.

Thailand is America's second-largest seafood supplier. Failure to act now may force the US to downgrade Thailand to the lowest tier of their trafficking in persons index, which could lead to economic sanctions and would see them ranked alongside countries like North Korea and Iran.

MARK LAGON, FORMER US AMBASSADOR ANTI-HUMAN TRAFFICKING: Maybe that will lead the Thai government to realise that it's not just forming task forces or passing laws, but in fact enforcement, that matters. There is no connectivity between labour inspectors and law enforcement to hold traffickers to account and actually the government is all too often complicit with corruption.

The Thai authorities may lack the political will to deal with slavery, but much of the responsibility still falls to the retailers and supermarkets who bring the prawns to our plate. Campaigners like Steve Trent say they have been warning supermarkets about slavery for years.

STEVE TRENT, DIRECTOR ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE FOUNDATION: They can say to suppliers, "If you don't make sure, if you don't adhere to our rules and regulations, we will no longer purchase from you" and that in and of itself sends out a very powerful message.

When asked to comment on our findings of slavery in their supply chain the top four global retailers - Walmart, Tescos, Carrefour and Costco - all condemned it. Some admitted they were aware that slavery had been reported in the Thai fishing sector and were setting up programs to try to tackle it. All declined to be interviewed. CP Foods Bob Miller was the only representative of the industry prepared to face the cameras. He claims it is better to work within the system to bring about change, rather than walk away completely.

BOB MILLER, CP FOODS: It doesn't do us any great benefit to know that there is trafficking going on, that people are being disadvantaged in this way, and the more we find out, then the more uncomfortable we become. We would like to solve the problem of Thailand, because there's no doubt commercial interests have created much of it problem, and it will be to the commercial aspects of the industry that the solutions will have to come.

And those solutions, say campaigners, are going to mean that the big-name supermarkets have to pay if they want slavery out of the prawn and shrimp supply chain.

STEVE TRENT: They are actively supporting slavery by not acting and conversely they could be acting to get rid of it if they really had the desire.

MAN (Translation): When I first came to Thailand, I used to think we were all equal but it is not like that here. They beat us - but why? We are considered worthless. The fish is more valuable than we are. We are less than human.

ANJALI RAO: CP Foods say they've begun an investigation into every step of their supply chain, in partnership with the Thai authorities. Pending the outcome of that investigation they've suspended purchasing from suppliers except for which they are able to verify the entire supply chain of all ingredients. You can see their detailed response to the claims in the story on our website, plus full responses from Coles, Woolworths and IGA. That's at sbs.com.au/dateline.



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26th August 2014