October 16th, 2012
01:04 PM ET

Shrimp exports to West tied to bonded labor

Editor's Note: Anti-trafficking expert Siddharth Kara is the author of “Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia,” providing the first comprehensive overview of bonded labor in South Asia.

In the third chapter of my new book on bonded labour, I explore the shrimp industry of Bangladesh. Chingri (shrimp) harvesting provides a highly illustrative case study of the very powerful ways in which environmental change can directly contribute to human trafficking, debt bondage, and forced labor exploitation, especially in the far reaches of the developing world.

To research the shrimp industry of Bangladesh requires a journey to the cyclone-wracked southwestern reaches of the country.

Here, one finds four stages to Bangladesh’s shrimp industry supply chain: 1 shrimp fry (baby shrimp) collection, shrimp farming, the distribution to processors, and shrimp processing. Each one of these stages is tainted by some form of severe labor exploitation.

Bangladesh’s shrimp industry is relatively new, and the recent shift from traditional agriculture to shrimp aquaculture in southwestern Bangladesh is primarily a result of climate change.

Beginning in the 1990s, farmers began to notice more and more saline shrimp in their irrigation channels, primarily due to rising sea levels.

Bangladesh is within close proximity of several multi-billion-dollar shrimp exporting nations such as Thailand, India, and Vietnam, so landowners quickly did the math and realized that low-intensity saline shrimp would generate far more profit than rice or potatoes ever would.

They rapidly transformed the area from freshwater agriculture to saline aquaculture. Now there are more than 170,000 hectares of saline shrimp farms (ghers) along the southwestern coast of Bangladesh (and more than 400,000 hectares of freshwater ghers further north). Nothing else can grow here, and no animals can graze.

“Our children have no vegetables to eat, no fresh water, and no milk,” a shrimp farmer named Aziz told me. “It is terrible here, but we have no choice. We are lucky to have this gher; otherwise what would we do?”

Aziz was a former agricultural bonded laborer who managed to transition to bonded labor for shrimp farming.

Hundreds of thousands of other farmers were forcibly displaced by the shrimp farms, because shrimp harvesting requires vastly fewer people than agricultural crops. Many of these peasants were trafficked to India and Southeast Asia for labor exploitation.

Those that remain eke out a destitute existence of bondage.

Children are also heavily exploited by the shrimp sector of Bangladesh. Thousands of children wade into the muddy, parasite-infested rivers near the Sundarban mangrove forests to catch baby shrimp in small blue nets.

As one of these children named Mohammed explained: “None of us are in school. I wish I could be in school, but I must do this work or else we cannot earn enough money…This entire area is for shrimp farming, so there is no other work for us.”

Once caught, the baby shrimp spend three to four months growing into full-grown shrimp in farms like Aziz’s, after which they are distributed to processors who de-scale, de-vein, and/or behead them before freezing them for export.

Almost all shrimp exports from Bangladesh are bound for the U.S., the EU, and Japan. This processor stage is rumored to be replete with forced labor, but I had little success in accessing the plants as I was angrily turned away at gunpoint from all of them except one.

By my calculation, roughly one out of every 57 shrimp consumed around the world are tainted by forced labor, bonded labor, or child labor from Bangladesh alone.

As the average U.S. citizen consumes approximately two kilograms of shrimp per year, this means that each American eats roughly one to three pieces of tainted shrimp each year, just from Bangladesh.

While a low cost of production in countries like Bangladesh has helped shrimp become the top seafood commodity in the world, it is vital to remember that as with so many other commodities sourced from the developing world, this same low cost of production is a direct function of immeasurable human exploitation and environmental harm.

Read more about bonded labor in Asia.

soundoff (87 Responses)
  1. Carlos Silva !

    very stupid article.

    October 16, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Reply
    • Jeb

      Is there anything left that isn't tied to slavery, child labor, etc??????? Welcome to the corporate greed world..

      October 17, 2012 at 7:25 am | Reply
      • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

        Slavery was here long before corporations.

        October 17, 2012 at 7:58 am |
      • billy

        Yes, you are correct but the politicians of the world do not care as the big money corporations buy them.
        Even if you stop buying shrimp( I only buy Key West Pink anyways) it will not make any difference – the children
        of these countries are seen as a way to make money. A very sad world we live in today....

        November 12, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Hey Carlitos

      You read it all the way, so obviously it caught your interest. I personally don't buy seafood if it doesn't say "product of usa".

      November 15, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Reply
      • StanCalif

        Does your restaurant meal come with "made in America" labels? Of course not! Do you ask? Of course not!
        Of course your waiter will tell you anything you want to hear, even if you bothered to ask! Even the chef may not know where the owner bought the food.

        November 23, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Mike Angelo

      Why is it a stupid article is beyond me. Perhaps you could enlighten us Carlos. Personally, I don't eat farmed shrimp after watching the doc on the practice of farming shrimp. literally living in their own excrement. Wild or nothing for me.

      November 18, 2012 at 9:54 am | Reply
      • StanCalif

        Buying shrimp (or any other food for home preparaton) is on thing. Buying a meal in any restaurant in another! NO restaurant meal comes with labels! You have no idea where your food came from and probably could care less!

        November 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • StanCalif

      When you go to a restaurant, do you ask where your shrimp (or other foods) come from? Of course not! Everyone talks big, but does nothing! Your beef steak could be from Argentina, your salad from Mexico! Your seafood can come from many countries. Do you really care?
      NO! You are out to enjoy a good time, world politics is far from your mind!
      Your delicious Red Snapper is probably NOT what you think it is, do you care?

      November 23, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  2. freddy

    Quite a stretch to say that each American is eating shrimp that has been someway tainted.

    October 16, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Reply
  3. fisherman

    Americans will eat lobsters, home-caught, only.

    October 16, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Reply
    • Taskmaster

      Americans eat eat Rock Lobster Tail imported from South Africa everyday.

      October 17, 2012 at 8:59 am | Reply
  4. ytuque

    Why doesn't the writer just call for a boycott of Bangladeshi shrimp?

    October 16, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Reply
  5. Harun

    Any person can leave a shrimp firm or a tea plantation to become a rickshaw driver, for example, in any township of Bangladesh. Is that a bonded labour condition? With a very vibrant civil society and a very noisy media would have found out bonded labours in Bangladesh. I think the author of the report shuld be nominated for some prize on writing a extra ordinary fiction.

    October 17, 2012 at 12:49 am | Reply
  6. MIZAN

    Its a baseless, concocted story written with a ill motive to malign the export of shrimp of Bangladesh.Most of the suppliers project/ processing plants are audited by 3rd part auditor nominated by venders.Even the EU delegation and FLA representative visited many processing plants and found it alright.If these shrimp Industry could not maintained the required standard than how could they export for long long time.ECO,ES and CT-PAT compliance is a continuous process to improve and we are doing it with full satisfaction of our vendors.Lets ask the vendors to reduce their profit margin and increase the rate only than it will allow suppliers to increase ethical payments to the workers.

    October 17, 2012 at 1:43 am | Reply
  7. Mohon Kumar Mondal

    It is really true article. I am living in the southwest coastal area where shrimp is mostly cultivated.

    October 17, 2012 at 1:51 am | Reply
  8. mmi16

    I am amazed at all the Thrid Worlder's that view themselves as victims. Grow some balls and take your own destiny in your own hands.

    October 17, 2012 at 1:56 am | Reply
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Agreed. Most of those cultures have been around far longer than the U.S. but they want us to save them, fix their problems.

      October 17, 2012 at 8:01 am | Reply
      • WASP

        @tom: well we do have ourselves to blame for that one. we spent so much man power to fix the world's problems early on, that now they expect america to spend the time, money and man-power to fix every problem they have come their way.
        it's kindof a catch 22, if we help them they will always rely on us to fix their problems, but if we don't help people could die.

        October 17, 2012 at 9:04 am |
  9. noor khan

    It is strange that the entire world community is against the child labor, who are striving to feed themselves or their families due to sheer poverty. The world community tries to take away the very loaf of bread they earned. Instead of punishing those who exploit these children the world community is punishing these poor children their sole bread earnings. Those who exploit them become rich but those exploited die.

    October 17, 2012 at 2:47 am | Reply
  10. Guest

    Alright Comunist News Network, way to write yet another SHIITTY article!!!

    October 17, 2012 at 3:12 am | Reply
    • Bill

      Guest, if you can not spell correctly, your post is taken as meaningless.

      October 17, 2012 at 9:40 pm | Reply
  11. treesloth16

    This article really has no point. The argument is also flawed. The author is suggesting that we stop eating Bangladesh shrimp because of exploitation of workers, including children. It was not the USAs intention to have Bangladesh farm shrimp. If they feel they are being exploited, they should consult their government. If Bangladesh does not wish to produce shrimp, then another third world country will produce it. The author can then go there and complain about that country too. What the author really wants is us to stop eating shrimp, but that won't solve anything. If he/she wants to change the way the business is run, he should protest to the Bangladesh government and make aware that their peoples are suffering at the hands of Bangladesh businessmen. Americans just buy what is offered; we don't make or enforce policies of other countries. We did not force those farmers to convert their farmland into aquaculture. What a flawed argument.

    October 17, 2012 at 3:46 am | Reply
  12. Dr. Craig Meisner

    As an American who has lived and worked now for 25 years in Bangladesh, this man has lied through his teeth about these matters. I have traveled to many a tea garden and they are always open to tourists and visitors. My work is with the more poorer shrimp growers in SW Bangladesh and I have never ever seen anything as he described in his interview. I don't know where he went, but he must have seen the EXCEPTION and not the rule. I have seen many and never witnessed anything as he described. I am fluent in Bangla. Was he? It is a shame how he has besmeared the image of Bangladesh by his interview. He should be ashamed of himself....by self-promoting a book that he wrote and not reflecting the truth. SHAME ON HIM!!!!!

    October 17, 2012 at 5:08 am | Reply
    • Badly-Bent

      Gee, for some reason I believe him more than I believe you.

      October 17, 2012 at 8:01 am | Reply
  13. pray

    I refuse to buy any shrimp from outside the US. It must be fresh and locally caught. The shrimp industry in China, Vietnam etc utilize sewage pits to grow the shrimp to full size. This has been reported repeatedly and yet people buy the cheap frozen shrimp offered in about every single supermarket in the USA. Stop and read the labels and its country of origin before you consume these tainted products

    October 17, 2012 at 5:17 am | Reply
  14. JUNTAK

    It is BEST that you SHUT-UP, and DO NOT meddle with other countries' affairs. USA was full of slave labor, forced labor, corruption, and all kinds of nonsense prior to year 1940s. These countries are still on the learning stage, and has only enjoyed independence in less than 100 years. Even here in USA - modern slavery exists - student debts, national debt, and forced stealing of property, including eminent domain. USA has the same problems that these poorer countries have - there are just more laws to make it look as if things are cleaner in USA.

    October 17, 2012 at 7:04 am | Reply
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh please.. these countries are far older than we are. They should be ahead of us ..not behind.

      October 17, 2012 at 8:05 am | Reply
      • mrpips

        Yes, it's just a learning process people, that's why it's okay. Get real

        October 17, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  15. fiftyfive55

    Do folks know that the first Americans from Europe were Bonded/Indentured servants? I bet we dont teach that in school anymore ?
    Isnt Bangladesh the type of place American business goes to in order to avoid EPA regulations and to take advantage of no child labor laws ?

    October 17, 2012 at 7:10 am | Reply
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      What is your point exactly? That the much younger U.S. that started with a similar set of rules realized how terrible it was and made it illegal here. So now business (not just American) go to these primitive countries that have yet to enforce the same said laws? And it’s all America’s fault too..right?

      October 17, 2012 at 8:08 am | Reply
  16. R2D2

    The shrimp aren't too happy about the whole arrangement either.

    October 17, 2012 at 7:24 am | Reply
  17. Easyanswer

    Why don't we just not eat the 1 to 3 "tainted" shrimp? Problem solved.

    October 17, 2012 at 7:34 am | Reply
  18. NOLAlady

    EAT AMERICAN GULF SHRIMP!! keep our shrimpers working, the shrimpers have had enough troubles with hurricanes and oil spills...now the gulf is is clean and the shrimp are wonderful.....I refuse to buy shrimp from Asia, I am never sure of the safety.

    October 17, 2012 at 7:36 am | Reply
    • morm

      Right, the Asian shrimp don't have the requisite petroleum content.

      October 17, 2012 at 8:29 am | Reply
    • Just curious

      Good idea; when it comes to taste, the gulf shrimp really are the best.

      October 17, 2012 at 10:05 am | Reply
  19. wendy5

    how am i supposed to konw which shrimp to eat

    October 17, 2012 at 8:01 am | Reply
    • Badly-Bent

      Try switching to Langostinos.

      October 17, 2012 at 8:03 am | Reply
  20. morm

    I actually have a life, and I don't intend to spend it trying to make certain that all the foods I eat and products I use are produced by happy workers who dance as they work.

    October 17, 2012 at 8:34 am | Reply
  21. ROMNEY2012

    I'm wearing Nike's made in a sweatshop in China.
    Clothes made in a sweatshop in India.
    My BMW was made in Germany.
    Now all my shrimp are made in bangerdesh?


    Vote for MITT ROMNEY! He has the God given talent, dedication and God is on his side!
    Voting for a Godless Obama should void your USA Citizenship.

    October 17, 2012 at 8:48 am | Reply
    • Hello

      what is really driving this it the over population of the whole planet. As the number of humans increase the value of human life will decrease.. I can not imagine how this planet will be with 25+ billion...
      At the rate of growth.. this will be met in the next 50 yrs. Then food will be more valuable then a human being.

      October 26, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Reply
      • Dionysiius

        Try and find the film "Soylent Green"... it will help your imagination...

        November 7, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
    • StanCalif

      Of course! Romney has no qualms with shutting down your employer and sending your work over to foreign countries! Easiest way to make a few more dollars! Then, spend billions to enlarge the military and start a few more wars. War is profitable! Don't worry, all this will magically "trickle down" – Ha, Ha, Ha! We have been there before!

      November 2, 2012 at 8:07 am | Reply
    • Gangrin


      December 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  22. sbuler

    What a bunch of self-righteous, ignorant commenters we have today. Get out of your parents basement.

    October 17, 2012 at 8:56 am | Reply
    • No Human Trafficking

      @ sbueler: Agreed. Remarks such as many of these make clear why we cannot get slavery ensnaring our own children efficiently addressed on American soil.

      How dare the self-enforced ignorance of conditons of others be brought to public attention? Knowledge requires action, therefore all knowledge with effect on egocentric living will be violently rejected like children throwing a tantrum. Smacks of the arguments heard throughout Europe as certain atrocities were coming to light in the last century.

      The out of hand, knee-jerk rejection of information from a world respected researcher and top consultant to many governments (who certainly is not gaining riches nor public fame with his grueling and thorough work), confirms the embarrassing depth of denial.

      We have similar conditions developing in Florida and in the Baja California peninsula. How close is too close? I'm certain the screaming over responsibility for these practices will then be deafening and fingers will be pointed anywhere but home.

      October 19, 2012 at 10:38 am | Reply
  23. Sue

    This is a very weak article. At least the people are making a living. What makes you a "trafficking expert"?????!!!

    October 17, 2012 at 9:01 am | Reply
  24. Monzur

    Are you suggesting that the West should stop getting shrimp from Bangladesh? Did you think what other options those poor people have then? Do you want to make them jobless beggars by taking awaw whatever little they have? First suggest some alternatives then talk about bonded labor etc. In Bangladesh we have far serious issues than to pay attention to your hyped story.

    October 17, 2012 at 9:29 am | Reply
    • Syeda

      Author of the article should reply. Can't agree more, Monzur.

      October 18, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  25. Just curious

    Article not thorough enough. How is it "forced labor"? I have to work to eat and pay bills, so is that "forced labor"? Also, quote "Nothing else can grow here, and no animals can graze." Sooo, the shrimp are a blessing, no? Of course child labor is wrong if it takes the place of school. Nothing wrong with putting in a few hours after school, here we have plenty of people who put in time at their parent's place or work to afford college. Point of the article is probably valid but not very well made.

    October 17, 2012 at 9:57 am | Reply
  26. intexas

    The report is absolutely one sided only. Taking those jobs away from the children is like taking their last food to live that day. Those people are extremely dirt poor, they don't have a house nor even a bucket of land to lay their shack on it, so regardless of their age – any job comes along they'll grab it just to survive. Probably, some works more hours, get so exchausted but they tough it out just for "survival". They do not complain, they're used to it, it's their daily lives and tha's all they know........I really feel for them but get over, we can not save the world. I visited lots of poor country and give money to poor, poor children as much as I can but as I say we can not save the world.

    October 17, 2012 at 10:24 am | Reply
    • Christine

      Why can't we save the world? "we" here in this forum are potentially everyone in the world with access to internet. Imagine that! So I believe that we CAN save the world. Question is how - but the first step is to believe that we can make a change. And it certainly has to be with everyone on board 🙂

      November 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  27. Steve

    First, we must stop judging other countries and their people by American standards, while we may not like it, they see nothing wrong with it. So let them alone, why must we always meddle in other people's affairs? We have enough problems in our own country, lets take care of them first

    October 17, 2012 at 10:29 am | Reply
    • Christine

      The right to an education and freedom from forced labour are certainly not only american values but agreed on by the United Nations, which Bangladesh (and almost all countries in the world) is part of.

      November 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  28. Bill Collis

    Dear CNN,

    I have lived and worked in Bangladesh since the late 70's. I have worked with fish, freshwater prawn, shrimp and rice farmers in the areas discussed. You and your correspondent are wrong. I am very disappointed in CNN for publishing this type of non-factual nonsense. These kinds of articles do serious harm to an industry and to the small farmers who make up the majority of those growing shrimp.
    Get your facts straight CNN!


    October 17, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Reply
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    October 19, 2012 at 12:59 am | Reply
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  33. Jumana Sarwar

    I don't know what kind of expert he is, but certainly he is not speaking the truth. He is making a concocted story with ulterior motive- the destroy the livelihood of the poor people and hurt the economy of Bangladesh.

    October 27, 2012 at 11:45 am | Reply
    • Steve

      I agree with you 100%

      November 5, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  34. Mostafa Shiblee

    While the description is correct but the interpretation is not! The writer has cooked up the idea of bonded labor in shrimp sector of Bangladesh. In reality, the saline water shrimp ( i farm fresh water prawn, larger in size, fetches more price in both local and international market, takes more time i.e. 6 months instead of 4 months for saline shrimps, environment friendly; can be farmed with rice etc) has caused damage to the soil ecology, put the rice farmers out of business (to some extent) and impoverished many people and indirectly forced them to end up working as shrimp fry catchers, especially women and children. But none to my knowledge are bonded labor, so to speak. In processing plants, only few hundred work when the production is on and they work under a particular contractor and free to leave or abstain if needed. Like any other industry it has compliance issues which the sector is gradually improving.

    In a nutshell, the shrimp sector needs to be overhauled, saline water shrimp farming should be gradually replaced with fresh water prawn which poorer farmers can manage but the existence of bonded labor in Bangladesh shrimp sector is a white lie, generated out of little investigation and over enthusiastic biased misinterpretation.

    October 29, 2012 at 7:12 am | Reply
    • William

      Many good points but you see how our press twists stories to make people victims.
      Also, if you are posing on a USA site, you cant say "white lie." That is racist.

      November 6, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  35. johnwest

    who cares? We have to do what we can in our life, to make it better. these people are lucky have this business.

    November 1, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  36. smako

    China uses convict labor to manufacture everything from major appliances to rubber poo and nobody bats an eye. Let a defenseless nation do it and it draws global outrage. Just like Cuba being condemned for being an evil communist dictatorship that kills political prisoners, while China, an evil communist dictatorship, kills more just because they have more, is on our favored trade list.

    November 5, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  37. William

    Ask if your shrimp is Gulf Coast shrimp. Help our own shrimpers out.

    November 6, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Reply
  38. Kurlymon

    Who in the world but a raging tree hugger would complain about cheap shrimp. Maybe they should raise taxes on the shrimp companies and give those people food stamps, that would fix it.

    November 13, 2012 at 11:57 am | Reply
  39. Conrad Shull

    Eat wild caught Gulf shrimp. The are the best tasting by far, you support American shrimpers and the issue of the article is not there. (Any snarky responses about the BP oil spill from people who don't eat shrimp anyway are not with standing. The Gulf shrimp are fine.)

    November 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  40. StanCalif

    When you go to a restaurant, do you ask where your shrimp (or other foods) come from? Of course not! Everyone talks big, but does nothing! Your beef steak could be from Argentina, your salad from Mexico! Your seafood can come from many countries. Do you really care?
    NO! You are out to enjoy a good time, world politics is far from your mind!
    Your delicious Red Snapper is probably NOT what you think it is, do you care?

    November 23, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  41. StanCalif

    When you go to a restaurant, do you ask where your shrimp (or other foods) come from? Of course not! Everyone talks big, but does nothing! Your beef steak could be from Argentina, your salad from Mexico! Your seafood can come from many countries. Do you really care?
    NO! You are out to enjoy a good time, world politics is far from your mind!
    Your delicious Red Snapper is probably NOT what you think it is, do you care?

    November 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Reply
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