EVIDENCE of human rights and labour abuses taking place in the Bangladesh Shrimp industry is revealed in a report released on Thursday by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).
Bangladesh is among the top ten exporters of shrimp, making it the Asian country’s second largest foreign currency earner after the ready-made garment industry, and a major source of employment in the country.
‘It is estimated that the industry directly provides a livelihood to nearly 1.2 million people, while approximately 4.8 million are indirectly dependent on this sector,’ says the report.
And like the notorious garment industry, the report, Impossibly Cheap: Abuse and Injustice in Bangladesh’s Shrimp Industry, reveals ‘the supply chain is plagued with economic, labour and social issues and workers face exploitative working conditions’.
Featuring testimonies recorded during investigations in 2012, it documents examples of hazardous working conditions, the use of child labour, bonded labour, withholding of pay, excessively low wages, health and safety violations, restricted union activities, verbal abuse and excessive hours.
According to testimonies from processing plant workers documented by EJF, Bangladeshi law is violated with both contract and permanent workers regularly completing 12-hour days and not paid overtime or bonuses.
‘Workers reported that they were not given holidays, with many working seven days a week,’ says the foundation. ‘Bangladeshi law mandates that workers should have an hour off each day for lunch, yet EJF found no evidence that processing plant workers were given this time.
‘A number of workers also reported they were unable to take toilet breaks when needed.’
One shrimp farmer typically supports six family members with a daily income of just US$ 0.83 per family member per day.
The super-exploitation of these workers has resulted from a significant increase in the growth of the industry in the last three to four decades from subsistence shrimp farming.
By 2009, Asian countries alone accounted for 78 per cent of global shrimp production, which exceeded 3.5 million tonnes.
For some of these countries, like Bangladesh, the EU is their single most important market – most notably the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands.
This high demand for shrimp, says EJF, means: ‘Child, forced and bonded labour has been observed in almost all producing countries, along with land grabbing, forceful relocations and torture.’
EJF refers to research conducted by US-based labour rights group Verité which found Bangladeshi shrimp fry collectors ‘more vulnerable to exploitation and harassment’ and ‘victims of extortion by local authorities and paramilitaries’.
The transformation of Bangladesh’s shrimp industry, EJF points out, can be traced back to the mid-1980s and policy changes incorporated into the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs).
The report states: ‘SAPs include the economic policy changes imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank as conditions for the provision of loans or obtaining lower interest rates on existing loans.
‘The policy changes are designed to encourage the structural adjustment of an economy by, for example, removing “excess” government controls and promoting market competition as part of the World Bank’s agenda to increase the development impact of international trade.
‘With Bangladesh’s combination of plentiful supplies of wild shrimp fry to stock the ponds, low-lying rice fields, a suitable climate, fertile soil and a substantial pool of available labourers, the government and international policy makers saw the shrimp sector as having a “comparative advantage” over other industries.’
As a consequence, there were ‘significant changes’ in the structure of shrimp farm ownership and the essence of the World Bank’s ‘agenda to increase the development impact of international trade’ is made abundantly clear.
‘Beginning in the 1980s, wealthy and well-connected urban dwellers combined forces with political leaders and local administrators to illegally access agricultural land, which was often taken over by force,’ notes the report.
EJF add: ‘Companies have sought to increase their flexibility in production whilst reducing labour costs, in order to maximise their international competitiveness and assert their place in the extremely lucrative international market.
‘The effects of this have been most greatly felt in the lower segments of the chain where poverty, social vulnerability and lack of industry regulation have allowed labour conditions to fall severely behind the pace of industry expansion and sophistication.
‘Bangladesh’s shrimp supply chain is largely unregistered, with around 90 per cent of its total workforce confined to the poorest sections of the coastal communities, making it extremely susceptible to labour and human rights abuses.
‘More than 75 per cent of Bangladesh’s population (approximately 131.5 million people) lives on less than US$2 a day, with over 40 per cent living on less than US$1.25.
‘While the shrimp industry contributes approximately four per cent of the country’s GDP, at a local level it has done little to reduce poverty and hunger, or foster development…
‘The failure to implement and enforce existing labour laws combined with severe restrictions on workers’ ability to form unions and engage in collective bargaining has contributed significantly to incidences of labour and human rights abuses.
‘A review of union activities in the processing stage between 2010 and 2011 found that, even when unions were formed successfully, the majority of executive committee members were dismissed without reason or forced to resign.’
The report adds: ‘Poverty and debt expose workers to exploitation and abuse. In the processing plants, approximately 70 per cent of workers are day labourers or contract workers.
‘They have no set working hours, fixed wages, contracts, appointment letters or employment records. Processing agents may use sub-contractors to hire workers, making monitoring of employment practices even more problematic.
‘Profits from the shrimp industry are primarily limited to a minority at the top of the supply chain, while the real price of “cheap” shrimp is being paid by some of Bangladesh’s poorest and most vulnerable people.
‘A cycle of debt resulting from low wages, debt bondage and financial insecurity perpetuates the use of bonded and child labour and will remain a problem if urgent action is not taken.’
The report also exposes the hazardous conditions the shrimp workers endure, including man-eating tigers, and poisonous snakes.
Also, besides the risk of drowning, ‘prolonged immersion in brackish river water puts shrimp fry collectors at risk of severe health and sanitary problems.
‘This is compounded by the fact that many have no access to medical facilities. Negative health impacts resulting from prolonged exposure to brackish water, include waterborne diseases, skin infections, urinary tract infections, diarrhoea, cholera and dysentery.’
Steve Trent, Executive Director of EJF, said: ‘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.
‘Consumers in Europe and the US 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.’
Along with their report, EJF has produced a film titled ‘Impossibly Cheap’ which can be seen on their website: www:ejfoundation.org.