NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Bangladeshi shrimp industry employers, responding to rising demand for cheap seafood in western supermarkets, are keeping down costs by using bonded and child labour and imposing dangerous working conditions, low wages and long hours on their 1.2 million employees, a report by British charity Environment Justice Foundation (EJF) has revealed.
Bangladesh is among the world’s top 10 exporters of farmed shrimps, which are the impoverished South Asian nation's second largest foreign currency earner after ready-made garments.
The EJF report , “Impossibly Cheap: Abuse and Injustice in Bangladesh’s Shrimp Industry”, said the multi-billion dollar shrimp industry had tried to reduce production costs to maintain price competitiveness as shrimp had gained popularity as a low-fat, high protein, affordable food in the West.
“It’s outrageous that an industry generating such high levels of export revenue is failing to uphold the basic human rights of the workers that produce its products,” EFJ Executive Director Steve Trent said in a statement.
“Consumers in Europe and the U.S. should be aware of the hidden cost to the impossibly cheap shrimp we consume that involves the brutal treatment of workers. In the 21st century, food produced by forced or bonded labour should not be on our plates.”
The global shrimp industry was worth more than $16.7 billion in 2010, making shrimp the most valuable fisheries product in the world, accounting for about 15 percent of the total value of internationally traded seafood products that year, the report said.
CHILD, BONDED LABOUR
Some 1.2 million people are directly employed in the sector in Bangladesh and 4.8 million indirectly dependent on it, the report estimates, but the industry is largely unregulated.
“Despite the profitability of the industry, most of the workers engaged in the shrimp supply chain are poor and are being pushed further into poverty as a result of exploitative and often abusive practices,” the report said.
Interviews conducted in 2012 with workers in different stages of the supply chain - from fry (larvae) collectors to shrimp farmers to factory processing workers – found that “sub-standard or exploitative working conditions” such as child and bonded labour are being used.
“By the age of 10, many young people have begun work as fry collectors, pushing nets through the river, working on the boats or sifting through the catch,” the report, released on Jan. 16, said.
It cited the testimony of 10-year-old Asma Ulhusna from Gabura Union who was forced to miss school up to three times a week to collect shrimp larvae as her parents were too poor to pay for her books and pencils.
The report said that bonded labour was also prevalent throughout the industry – often in the form of debt bondage.
“Poor and marginalised fry collectors and farmers can be tied to intermediaries through conditional loans, or dadan, which are borrowed as start up capital; for example, to buy nets for fry collection (or) establish a shrimp farm,” said the report.
“As well as accruing interest, dadan oblige farmers and collectors to sell their produce at a fixed price to intermediaries ... Fry collectors may never escape the cycle of debt and can spend most of their lives as bonded labourers.”
The report also said that fry collectors faced many dangers such as snake bites and tiger attacks, and that there were many cases of drownings in the region of the Sundarbans, one of the main areas for Bangladesh's shrimp cultivation.
In processing factories, workers were often forced to work up to 12 hours daily, with few breaks and no overtime, the report said, and cited the monthly salary of one female employee as 3, 200 taka ($40).
CALL TO RETAILERS, CONSUMERS
The EJF called for urgent action by the Bangladeshi government, the shrimp industry and the countries and consumers whose demand for shrimp is fuelling this market, in particular the European Union and the United States.
It said that consumers were largely unaware of the true price being paid for their shrimp by some of Bangladesh’s most vulnerable people.
This is made possible partly by the lack of scrutiny required by EU and US import regulations, “which focus almost exclusively on food safety and product quality, to the detriment of labour and human rights standards,” it said.
“The problems are systemic but the importance of export markets to Bangladesh’s shrimp industry offers an opportunity for retailers and consumers to use their power to stand up for the basic rights of those who provide our shrimp,” the EJF's Trent said.
“Changes to the structure, management and regulations of the industry could protect those who are vulnerable and suffering from abuses and allow the people of Bangladesh to benefit from their natural resources.”