SAMUT SAKHON, Thailand — Every morning at 2 a.m., they heard a kick on the door and a threat: Get up or get beaten. For the next 16 hours, No. 31 and his wife stood in the factory that owned them with their aching hands in ice water. They ripped the guts, heads, tails and shells off shrimp bound for overseas markets, including grocery stores and all-you-can-eat buffets across the United States.
After being sold to the Gig Peeling Factory, they were at the mercy of their Thai bosses, trapped with nearly 100 other Burmese migrants. Children worked alongside them, including a girl so tiny she had to stand on a stool to reach the peeling table. Some had been there for months, even years, getting little or no pay. Always, someone was watching.
No names were ever used, only numbers given by their boss — Tin Nyo Win was No. 31.
Pervasive human trafficking has helped turn Thailand into one of the world’s biggest shrimp providers. Despite repeated promises by businesses and government to clean up the country’s $7 billion seafood export industry, an Associated Press investigation has found shrimp peeled by modern-day slaves is reaching the U.S., Europe and Asia.
The problem is fueled by corruption and complicity among police and authorities. Arrests and prosecutions are rare. Raids can end up sending migrants without proper paperwork to jail, while owners go unpunished.
An Associated Press investigation found enslaved migrant workers and children ripping the heads, tails, shells and guts off shrimp at processing factories in Thailand.
AP journalists followed and filmed trucks loaded with freshly peeled shrimp going from one peeling shed to major Thai exporting companies. Then, using U.S. customs records and Thai industry reports, they tracked it globally. They also traced similar connections from another factory raided six months earlier, and interviewed more than two dozen workers from both sites.
U.S. customs records show the farmed shrimp made its way into the supply chains of major U.S. food stores and retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, Whole Foods, Target, Dollar General and Petco, along with restaurants such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden. AP reporters in all 50 states went shopping and found related brands in more than 150 stores across America.
The businesses that responded condemned the practices that lead to labor abuse, and many said they were launching investigations.