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AP investigation finds grueling conditions in the shrimp industry in India

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Investigators are criticizing the working conditions for people who peel shrimp in India. Much of that shrimp ends up on American tables - used to come primarily from the Gulf of Mexico and then from Thailand, and now a large percentage of U.S. shrimp comes from shrimp farms in South Asia. They are grown by the millions in ponds and peeled by hand by the millions. Two nonprofit groups allege the workers face dangerous and abusive conditions. They are the Outlaw Ocean Project and the Corporate Accountability Lab. The Outlaw Ocean Project says India's industry is a growing Goliath with lax controls. The Associated Press conducted its own investigation, led by Martha Mendoza, who says women do some of the hardest work.

MARTHA MENDOZA: Their backs get incredibly sore. They're sometimes barefoot, and they're on these narrow wooden benches, and on these tables, there's just constantly refilled piles of cold shrimp that they're picking one at a time up and prying off their legs and their heads and their shells. These women are stuck in situations where they have no other job available because the shrimp growing and processing has taken over any agriculture or any other work in the region. And many carry huge debts, and so they're paid $3 a day and feel very trapped in their situations where they're just standing on these benches all day, every day, without a day off, peeling shrimp.

INSKEEP: How did you document what was going on inside these facilities?

MENDOZA: Shrimp in India are peeled in two different places. Some are in these off-the-books processing sheds, which are a little bit open air, concrete floored. The other places where they're processed are in state-of-the-art massive processing centers.

INSKEEP: So you might have a very modern-looking facility, but some of the work is off-site in places that are less impressive.

MENDOZA: That's right. So auditors are shown the bright and shiny clean facilities that are FDA-approved. Auditors are not going to go around the corner in a village processing shed where the labor abuse is really occurring.

INSKEEP: You just referred to auditors and the FDA. Are these shrimp facilities supposed to meet U.S. standards?

MENDOZA: Yes. All shrimp imported to the United States is supposed to meet health and hygiene standards and also are supposed to be produced without labor abuse. And there are laws in place and regulations in place to prevent shrimp that is produced through labor abuse or creating environmental damage from reaching the United States. But even the strongest laws, if they are not strongly enforced, aren't going to make much of a difference.

INSKEEP: But you just said forced labor. What is the evidence that this labor is forced, and how is it forced?

MENDOZA: So we were following a Corporate Accountability Lab report. They did a three-year investigation. They found that women inside of the more state-of-the-art processing sheds are not allowed to leave, sometimes can go out once a month or less. They have very little assets. They have trouble accessing clean drinking water. People living inside of the large processing plants live in hostels, sometimes sleeping on the floor or in crowded bunks. They can't leave the facility, except for when they have special permits or are going out with everybody for a rare outing.

INSKEEP: Why would there be any restrictions on them leaving at all?

MENDOZA: They don't want them to go back to their villages because that would be a bus or a rickshaw ride away, and they want them on site so that they can work their shifts. So the Corporate Accountability Lab found that most of the workers actually are coming from another part of India, and that they are the Dalit caste, which is a lower caste, and that they are confined to these facilities.

INSKEEP: Does the government of India make any commitment to worker safety?

MENDOZA: I spoke with the export minister for marine products. He said that India sends quality shrimp to the United States, and he refused to discuss any challenges regarding labor or environmental issues. And he abruptly ended our interview. I was standing there with evidence of photos and video that show that, at least in some situations, they're very abusive conditions for women.

INSKEEP: Is the shrimp produced in this process unsafe for Americans?

MENDOZA: Well, it has been repeatedly cited as having antibiotics on it. The U.S. does not check most shrimp entering the United States. I think it's around 1 or 2%. The EU checks much more. In terms of eating it, when people consume even trace amounts of antibiotics, they can develop a drug resistance to those antibiotics so that when you have an infection and you're taking the antibiotic, your body doesn't respond well to that because you have developed a resistance to it.

INSKEEP: As a general matter, does the government of India have health and safety standards of the kinds we might recognize in the United States?

MENDOZA: The government of India has strong health and safety standards. They know that doing business with the United States and the EU is critical to their economy. Whether those laws are enforced in India is another question.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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