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.