What could be more innocent than a prawn cocktail ? Or a prawn on the barbie in the back yard? Just Sunday treats which everyone enjoys. Yet underneath the Marie Rose sauce lurks a tale of exploitation, environmental degradation, and, as our report today shows, in certain cases something even worse. The slave labour used in parts of the Thai prawn industry marks a new low point in the abuse of workers in poorer countries, and an even more urgent reminder to the better off in all countries that when we decide we do not care about how the things we use and consume are produced, we risk consigning vast numbers of people to harsh and dismal lives, and sometimes to sad and unnecessary deaths.
Each time there is a burst of revulsion, then pledges of improvements by both producers and importers – pledges which may or may not be kept. Movements like Fairtrade garner wide support but may also have unhappy side-effects. It is often hard to tell whether external pressures, such as they are, have improved things much, if at all. Our addiction as consumers to cheap things and the addiction of our corporations to excessive profits are the main drivers of this process of immiseration.
It is important not to be utopian. We are not going to lose our obsession with shopping anytime soon, and the gradient in labour costs cannot be abolished. Indeed it is hard to see how the world economy could work without it. Even sweatshops may be better than the alternatives where the lower costs of labour may be one of the few comparative advantages possessed by governments intent on growth. Ideally, growth brings with it successful internal demands for better conditions, wages and union rights. But that does not mean we should just passively wait for such change. It can be accelerated. There must be action, above all, on forced and slave labour.
The International Labour Organisation calculates that 21 million are in forced labour, trafficking, and modern slavery worldwide, bringing $150bn in illegal profits to those who organise it. Among the victims are the poor Cambodians and Burmese whose plight we describe today. Forced to crew Thai boats scouring the ocean for fish to feed the country's voracious prawn farms, they are treated as if they are almost as disposable as the fish they catch. The Thai fishing trade has always had a lawless side, its activities blurring into smuggling, piracy and worse. During the late 70s, Thai pirates murdered and plundered the "boat people" fleeing communist rule in Vietnam. Bangkok failed to control those excesses. There must be international pressure on the Thai government to act with greater effectiveness this time.
What of us, the prawn eaters? The history of consumer boycotts is a spotty one, yet concerned customers can act to wake up theirsupermarkets. Let the big chains in turn use their considerable power to wake up their Asian suppliers, who in turn can upset the criminal labour brokers and gang masters who manage this vicious business.
The prawn problem, which is really just one aspect of a seriously distorted global economy, would not end there. Overfishing for wild prawn is environmentally destructive, prawn farming hardly less so. Ultimately only a worldwide rebalancing of manufacturing and farming so that more is everywhere produced both locally and responsibly can disentangle the skein which binds together the mistreatment of workers, the mistreatment of nature, and the mistreatment of ourselves.