Shocking slavery exposed in prawn production

The horror of modern day slavery was revealed this week with a newspaper report on how supermarket prawns are produced using forced labour in Thailand. What can stop this terrible practice?

A simple prawn mayonnaise sandwich, a prawn stir-fry, or a ready-made fish pie – all popular, relatively cheap meals that many of us enjoy. But behind some of these dishes there is a terrible and disturbing story of human misery.

The Guardian newspaper has found slaves at work in Thailand’s multibillion-dollar prawn industry. Its prawns are sold in leading supermarkets worldwide, including Tesco, the Co-op, Aldi, Morrisons and Iceland.

The Thai seafood sector employs about 650,000 people, many of whom are migrant workers from poorer neighbouring countries like Burma and Laos. Attracted by Thailand’s strong economy, they pay brokers to smuggle them across the border to find work.

But instead, many are sold to boat captains and forced to trawl international waters catching ‘trash fish’, which is then ground into fishmeal to feed prawns. The six-month investigation discovered that these slaves endure horrendous conditions: working 18-22 hours shifts, with barely enough to eat, and spending years at sea without seeing land, or even any pay. They are beaten, tortured and sometimes killed by ruthless captains.

One migrant, 21-year-old Kyaw, was told he would be paid to work in a pineapple factory, but when he saw the boats, he realised the fate that awaited him. ‘I was so depressed, I wanted to die,’ he said.

In response to these shocking revelations, the US government is considering downgrading Thailand on its slave-trafficking blacklist, which could result in economic sanctions. But Thailand has been warned before about its trafficking problem and little has been done. The country’s seafood industry would be far less profitable without slavery, so the government has little incentive to act, and collusion among officials is widespread.

Slavery is often associated with a bygone era – after all, it is now illegal in every country, including Thailand. But the horror persists worldwide and human life is still viewed as a disposable commodity by some. One activist estimates that the price of a slave today is only a twentieth of one at the height of the 19th-century slave trade.

The big catch

What can be done to stop this horrific trade in human life? Some say real change can only happen when governments, producers and supermarkets enact stricter legislation, regulation and rules. US sanctions against Thailand are a step in the right direction.

But others argue that it is down to consumers to force change through boycotts and campaigns. Pressure on our supermarkets will in turn make them put pressure on their suppliers to reform. The West’s insatiable appetite for cheap food is driving this cheap labour, so it is down to individuals to make their voices heard.

You Decide

  1. Should we only eat food that we have grown ourselves and which comes from the countries we live in?
  2. Who has the most responsibility to end this type of slavery? Governments, supermarkets, or individual consumers?


  1. In groups, design a poster and a slogan which encapsulates the issues raised in this story, and present them to the class.
  2. On a blank map of Asia, identify Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia. Draw arrows and captions on the map to explain how slavery is taking place.

Some People Say...

“The fact is, civilisation requires slaves.’Oscar Wilde”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t eat prawns so does this affect me?
It’s not just Thailand’s prawn industry that uses slaves. It happens all over the world; in the soya production chain in Brazil, which feeds chickens in industrial factories in the West, which provide supermarket chains with eggs in the UK. Many of us are fortunate enough to enjoy a wide variety of international foods, but we often eat it without knowing how it’s been made, and who suffered to produce it.
How serious is the problem?
There are almost 21 million people around the world held as slaves, according to the UN. It’s a huge problem, but it can be stopped. By telling your family and friends, signing petitions, and tweeting or writing letters to governments and supermarkets, you can let people in power know how concerned you are about this.

Word Watch

In a 2009 UN survey, 59% of migrants trafficked on to Thai boats said they had seen a fellow worker being murdered.
The annual Trafficking in Persons (TiP) report is considered the gold standard in global anti-trafficking efforts. It ranks 188 nations according to their willingness and efforts to combat slavery. If downgraded to a tier-3 ranking, Thailand would join Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. This could possibly trigger economic sanctions and the loss of development aid.
Secret or illegal co-operation or conspiracy in order to deceive others.
19th-century slave trade
During the Industrial Revolution, traders exported manufactured goods to West Africa where they were exchanged for slaves from African merchants. The slaves were transported across the Atlantic and sold for huge profits in the Americas to plantation owners. They were forced to lead brutal and degrading lives. The traders then brought the cotton and sugar they produced back across the Atlantic.

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