Thursday, February 04, 2016

Slavery and the Accomplices

"I thought I was going to die. They kept me chained up, they didn't care about me or give me any food…They sold us like animals, but we are not animals – we are human beings."

21 million men, women and children are enslaved globally, according to the International Labour Organisation. These people may have been sold like property, forced to work under mental or physical threat, or find themselves controlled by their "employers".

Last month the Nestle company, along with Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, failed to get the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out a lawsuit seeking to hold them liable for the alleged use of child slaves in cocoa farming in the African nation of Ivory Coast.

The high court’s refusal to take up an appeal by the three commercial giants comes after Nestle admitted in 2015 that it had bought materials from Thailand produced on the backs of forced labor. In reporting that it had unknowingly used such products, the company said it was entering a new era of self-policing.

Andrew Wallis, chief executive of Unseen UK, an anti-trafficking charity advocating for more supply chain accountability, argues that Nestlé’s self-reporting could also be seen as a tactic to head off or deflate other pending civil litigation suits. This would be the same Nestle' that continued selling infant formula to mothers in poor world slums although they knew that using formula with dirty water would course the deaths and morbidity of infants. And they suborned and bribed doctors and nurses to do so.

“It’s easy to own up to something that has already been uncovered,” he says. “By the time Nestlé owned up to slavery in the Thai seafood industry it was accepted knowledge. It’ll be a brave new world when companies are actually doing the real investigation to probe into part of their supply chains that have remained outside the public domain.”

“If you buy prawns or shrimp from Thailand, you will be buying the produce of slave labour," said Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International.

A six-month investigation has established slaves forced to work for no pay for years at a time under threat of extreme violence are being used in Asia in the production of seafood sold by major US, British and other European retailers. Men who have managed to escape from boats supplying Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, a company with an annual turnover of $33bn (£20bn), and other companies like it told the Guardian of horrific conditions, including 20-hour shifts, regular beatings, torture and execution-style killings. Some were at sea for years; some were regularly offered methamphetamines to keep them going. Some had seen fellow slaves murdered in front of them. The supply chain works in this way: Slave ships plying international waters off Thailand scoop up huge quantities of "trash fish", infant or inedible fish. This fish on landing to factories is ground down into fishmeal for onward sale to CP Foods. The company uses this fishmeal to feed its farmed prawns, which it then ships to international customers. The alarm over slavery in the Thai fishing industry has been sounded before by non-governmental organisations and in UN reports. The Guardian has established how the pieces of the long, complex supply chains connect slavery to leading producers and retailers.

Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco, Aldi, Morrisons, the Co-operative and Iceland as customers of CP Foods. They all sell frozen or cooked prawns, or ready meals such as prawn stir fry, supplied by CP Foods and its subsidiaries. CP Foods admits that slave labour is part of its supply chain. "We're not here to defend what is going on," said Bob Miller, CP Foods' UK managing director. "We know there's issues with regard to the raw material that comes in to port, but to what extent that is, we just don't have visibility."

Thailand is considered a major source, transit and destination country for slavery, and nearly half a million people are believed to be currently enslaved within Thailand's borders. There is no official record of how many men are enslaved on fishing boats. But the Thai government estimates that up to 300,000 people work in its fishing industry, 90% of whom are migrants vulnerable to being duped, trafficked and sold to the sea. Rights groups have long pointed to Thailand's massive labour shortage in its fishing sector, which – along with an increased demand from the US and Europe for cheap prawns – has driven the need for cheap labour.

Capitalism is slavery ultimately. An economic dictatorship by capital exploiting all those who make the products and profits. The reformers are really just calling for the spoils of empire to be spread out more equally in the first world.

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