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Report ties U.S. retailers to sweatshop shrimp

  • Story Highlights
  • U.S. retailers received shrimp produced in sweatshop conditions, report finds
  • Workers in Bangladesh and Thailand in slave-like conditions, U.S. official says
  • Wal-Mart, Costco and Trader Joe's among chains that received shrimp
  • Wal-Mart says it is unaware of problems but will investigate, company tells CNN
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From Zain Verjee, Elise Labott, Justine Redman and Kocha Olarn
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(CNN) -- Americans on average eat three pounds of shrimp a year, but can U.S. shoppers be sure the shrimp they love was produced without slave labor?


Work conditions in this shrimp plant met standards, but some workers live in near slavery, a report found.

A three-year investigation by the AFL-CIO affiliated Solidarity Center found several leading U.S. retailers received shrimp from plants in Thailand and Bangladesh where workers as young as 8 are subject to sweatshop conditions.

The center's findings were supported by the State Department, which shares concerns about human trafficking in Thailand and worker abuse in both countries.

The report makes clear not all shrimp imports into the United States from Thailand and Bangladesh come from problem plants. Video Watch video of inside a shrimp factory »

However, with shrimp imports from those two nations totaling $1.5 billion annually each year, the report suggests U.S. consumers are in a position to put pressure on producers to improve worker conditions.

The report names some of the most popular retailers in America, including Wal-Mart, Costco and Trader Joe's.

But only Wal-Mart responded to CNN inquiries about the shipments and pledged to examine allegations of abuse in plants which supply some of its shrimp.

Retailers receiving questionable shrimp

Solidarity Center found that the following chains received shrimp from plants with substandard labor practices:

  • Costco
  • Cub Foods
  • Giant
  • Giant Eagle
  • Harris Teeter
  • IGA
  • Tops Markets
  • Trader Joe's
  • Wal-Mart

"Safety is a top priority at Wal-Mart," spokesman Deisha Galberth said in a written statement to CNN. "We hold our shrimp suppliers to the highest safety and quality standards -- including maintaining processing plants and packaging facilities that meet or exceed Best Aquaculture Practices standards set by the Global Aquaculture Alliance.

"Although we have not seen the Solidarity Center's report, we are working with our suppliers to investigate the allegations shared by CNN. We're not aware of any issues in our supply chain," the company said in the statement.

The center's 40-page report found sexual and physical abuse, debt bondage, child labor and unsafe working conditions are common in Thailand and Bangladesh's shrimp processing factories, and that Thai plants often use trafficked workers.

"There's so much slime on the floor you can hardly stand up, and that just keeping your bearing and footing while you are trying to do work that involves using sharp knives," Ellie Larson, the executive director of the Solidarity Center, told CNN.

"They are treated in ways I'm sure most American people think went by in the days of slavery. In fact that's the kind of conditions these workers are engaged in -- slave conditions," Larson said.

In the past two years Thai police have raided several shrimp processing plants and rescued hundreds of trafficked workers.

Mark Lagon, the State Department's ambassador at large for trafficking in persons, visited Thailand and met a young Burmese girl rescued from one of the plants.

Lagon said guards at the factory made an example of her and a handful of other who tried to escape.

"Her head was shaved. She was beaten. You can't describe this in other fashion except slavery," he said.

The State Department and the International Labor Organization are working with both countries to improve the conditions for workers in their shrimp industries. The Department of Labor told CNN it has been working with the Thai government on a project aimed specifically at eliminating child labor from the shrimp industry.

In interviews with CNN, diplomats from both countries said their governments are working to address problems in the shrimp sector but stressed their economies were still developing.

"We proceed from the same common premise that this thing is evil. This thing has to be tackled squarely," Krit Granjana-Goonchorn, Thailand's ambassador to the United States told CNN. "I don't think you will find anyone more willing than the government of Thailand in that regard."

Bangladesh's ambassador to the United States, Humayun Kabir, said about 15 cases have come to the country's labor court since 2006. About half of them have gone to trial, he said and those responsible have been punished.

"So the government is taking those legal measures," he said.

The shrimp industry's global trade group, the Global Aquaculture Alliance, says it is not aware of its member plants operating under the conditions the Solidarity Center report describes, but said it is going to take a harder look and the offenders could be cut out from the global marketplace.

"We absolutely will investigate any specifics that come forth from this report," GAA's Executive Director Wally Stevens told CNN. "If those plants are in any way conducting themselves in an inappropriate way, they'll be dropped from our program"

The Solidarity Center says it is publishing this report in an effort to raise consumer awareness.


The State Department also hopes the report will force consumers to think before they buy, Lagon said.

"If consumers are concerned about the tuna they buy and if dolphins were harmed, surely the consumer would care about potential slavery." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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