Shrimp farming, an industry that supplies the world with over 5 million metric tons of shrimp each year, is known throughout the environmental community as one of the world’s most destructive coastal industries.
Aquaculture, the type of industry utilized by shrimp companies in areas like Southeast Asia, dramatically reduces biological diversity, degrades habitats, reduces genetic variability, and causes disruptions in trophic systems. Recently, however, reports have surfaced that point to other problems associated with the industry, mainly in the area of human rights.
Shrimp factory workers, mainly employed in Southeast Asia, are prohibited from breaks and sick leave. Any of these actions, along with mistakes made on the factory line, are subject to severe physical punishments such as public beatings, sexual molestation, or torture.
According to a report released by the Solidarity Center, an international nonprofit allied organization of the AFL-CIO, shrimp laborers live in “virtual slavery.”
The report revealed that workers, many of them children, are denied access to basic services like health care and first aid despite regular exposure to hazardous chemicals. A steady global demand for shellfish hints that corporations have been able to place emphasis on increasing production rather than worker protections: the U.S. alone imports over four billion dollars of shrimp annually. With companies like Wal-Mart investing regularly in the industry as well, shrimp factories overseas have no impetus for revising working conditions. Not surprisingly, a spokesperson for Wal-Mart stated that the company was unaware of the allegations of human rights violations in many of the factories from which they import their shrimp.
While the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has recently proposed legislation to address the environmental concerns surrounding shrimp production, little action has been taken to address the labor issues that shrimp farming presents.
In 2007, the WWF initiated the Shrimp Aquaculture Dialogue to establish standards for responsible shrimp farming, with the aim of minimizing the industry’s environmental impacts.
Three years later, the agency presented its Draft Standards for Responsible Shrimp Aquaculture. The WWF has published what it views as “the key environmental and social issues related to shrimp aquaculture:”
- Farm design: Ecologically-sensitive habitat, such as mangrove forests, can be cleared to create ponds for shrimp production
- Water use/pollution: Salt water from shrimp farms can seep into the groundwater and onto agricultural land (a process called salinization); organic waste, harsh chemicals and antibiotics from shrimp farms can pollute the water; and aquifers can be drained to supply water to shrimp farms
- Feed management: Wild stocks of fish can be depleted for use in formulated feeds for shrimp production
- Broodstock: Biodiversity issues can arise from the collection of wild brood and seed
- Pathogens: The introduction of pathogens can lead to major shrimp disease outbreaks and significant economic losses in producing countries
- Socioeconomic issues: Jobs can be eliminated when there are fewer wild caught shrimp to harvest and/or shrimp farms are shut down due to disease outbreaks; public access to land can be restricted
Not surprisingly, labor rights violations appear, seemingly, as an afterthought. Included in their list of “Principles,” the WWF states that it intends to work with the United Nations to “operate farms with responsible labor practices.”
In the face of slow and often unsatisfactory legislative processes addressing the shrimp industry, countries like the U.S. (which today imports 4 out of 5 of the shrimp produced worldwide) can make progressive changes to the face of human rights violations around the world. While it may not be able to enforce social and environmental regulations for shrimp industries abroad, it can monitor its own domestic shrimp farming policies, and, most importantly reduce its imports of foreign shrimp.