Refugees fleeing Myanmar are being forced to work in Thai fisheries, which then export their products to countries like the United States and the U.K., an investigation by the Guardian revealed today.
The latest report by the Guardian found that Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are forced into slavery on Thai fishing operations. Since 2012, some 10,000 Rohingya have been displaced as the Myanmar government cracks down on the Muslim minority in the west of the country, according to Human Rights Watch.
"The Rohingya refugee crisis is a man-made crisis and it's designed on purpose to court anti-Muslim sentiment and groups inside Burma as part of the regime's campaign to try and win some kind of support for the [November] elections," Simon Billenness, executive director of the advocacy group U.S. Campaign for Burma, told Fusion.
The refugees are held captive by traffickers who either pick them up when they're desperate and on the run by boat, offering shelter and dry land, or abduct them from refugee camps in Myanmar. They're then held for ransom and face a grim future on a fishing trawler when their families can't pay.
“When men or boys [held in traffickers’ camps] are unable to pay…to secure their freedom they are often sold to fishing boats for use in slave labour. This has been happening for decades. It’s a situation in the Thai fishing sector that’s been going on since the '90s, at least as far as we can tell,” Matthew Smith, director of Bangkok-based human rights group Fortify Rights told the Guardian.
The Guardian first broke the story of exploitation in Thai fisheries last year, when it uncovered slave labor practices at Thai fisheries producing shrimp that ended up in supermarkets in the U.S. and the UK., including Walmart and Costco. More recently, the Associated Press found similar practices in Indonesian fisheries, with some of the products imported for Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway, and Walmart.
In response to the investigation, representatives for Walmart and Costco said they were taking action to make sure their suppliers stopped using slave labor. Walmart signed up to Project Issara, a coalition of retailers and non-profits working to put an end to slavery in Southeast Asia.
America imports around 90% of its seafood, according to Fishwatch, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration initiative. In 2013, that added up to 2.4 million metric tons from farmed and wild caught seafood.
But how can we tell if the seafood we're buying is from one of these slave labor fisheries?
It's hard to pin down the exact supply chain, the Guardian found, especially with this most recently uncovered slave labor from Burma. There's no publicly available direct breakdown of which fisheries are supplying U.S. companies, or which companies import from Thailand and Indonesia.
Getting seafood importers to declare their sources and guarantee that slave labor is not used would be a step in the right direction, Billenness told Fusion–but that's something that's only going to happen if consumers (that's us) care enough to do something about it.
He says we should think about not just boycotting products we suspect might have come from slave labor fisheries, but actually reaching out to the company and government in charge.
We should be "asking those companies and asking those governments, 'what are you doing to make sure that this doesn't happen in the future?' Simply not buying something doesn't send that kind of direct message," he said.