Grueling conditions in Indian shrimp industry that report calls ‘dangerous and abusive’

Noriko Kuwabara was excited to try a new recipe she’d seen on social media for crispy shrimp spring rolls, so she and her husband headed to Costco’s frozen foods aisle. But when she grabbed a bag of farm-raised shrimp from the freezer and saw “Product of India,” she wrinkled her nose.

“I actually try to avoid shrimp from India,” said Kuwabara, an artist. “I hear some bad things about how it’s grown there.”

She sighed and tossed the bag in her cart anyway.

Kuwabara’s dilemma is one an increasing number of American consumers face: With shrimp the leading seafood eaten in the United States, the largest supplier in this country is India, where the industry struggles with labor and environmental problems.

The Associated Press traveled in February to the state of Andhra Pradesh in southeast India to document working conditions in the booming industry, after obtaining an advance copy of an investigation released yesterday [Macau time] by the Chicago-based Corporate Accountability Lab, a human rights legal group, that found workers face “dangerous and abusive conditions.”

AP journalists obtained access to shrimp hatcheries, growing ponds, peeling sheds and warehouses, and interviewed workers, supervisors and union organizers.

India became America’s leading shrimp supplier, accounting for about 40% of the shrimp consumed in the U.S., in part because media reports including an AP investigation exposed modern day slavery in the Thai seafood industry. AP’s 2015 reporting led to the freedom of some 2,000 enslaved fishermen and prompted calls for bans of Thai shrimp, which had been dominating the market.

In India, residents told the AP newly dug hatcheries and ponds had contaminated neighboring communities’ water and soil, making it nearly impossible to grow crops, especially rice they depend on for food.

From the ponds, trucks hauled the shrimp to peeling sheds. In one shed, dozens of women, some barefoot, stood on narrow wooden benches enduring 10-hour shifts peeling shrimp covered in crushed ice. Barehanded or wearing filthy, torn gloves, the women twisted off the heads, pulled off the legs and pried off the shells, making it possible for American cooks to simply tear open a bag and toss the shrimp in a skillet.

From India, the shrimp travels by the ton, frozen in shipping containers, to the U.S., more than 8,000 miles away. It is nearly impossible to tell where a specific shrimp ends up, and whether a U.S.-bound shipment has a connection to abusive labor practices. And Indian shrimp is regularly sold in major U.S. stores such as Walmart, Target and Sam’s Club and supermarkets like Kroger and Safeway.

The major corporations that responded to AP’s queries said they deplore human rights violations and environmental damage and would investigate.

“If we learn that serious issues may be present in a supplier facility, whether through allegations made or audits, we deploy Walmart investigators to gather facts through on-site visits to facilities or through other means,” Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, said in a statement. “As such, we are looking into the allegations raised by the Associated Press.”

Pradeep Sivaraman, secretary of India’s Marine Products Export Development Authority, a government agency, traveled to the U.S. this month to represent his country’s shrimp industry on the bustling floor of the Seafood Expo North America in Boston. A chef at India’s booth sauteed a sizzling shrimp curry in front of a case filled with frozen shrimp.

Before ending a brief interview, Sivaraman said India is committed to providing quality shrimp to U.S. buyers. He refused to answer questions about labor and environmental problems.

Erugula plight

Erugula Baby, 51, widowed and destitute, sold her gold jewelry — her only savings — and then took out loan after loan in her rural Indian village as her son lay dying of liver disease. Her debt topped $8,500 and her son didn’t survive. Today she’s raising her granddaughters and trying to repay the loans, help her daughter-in-law get an education and, on a good day, eat a small amount of rice. She said she works in brutal conditions, peeling, cutting and grading shrimp in a factory for less than $4 a day, which is $2 less than minimum wage.

“The working conditions are tough,” she said, wiping away tears with the corner of her red sari. “Standing for long hours in the cold while peeling and cutting shrimp takes a toll on my body.”

Baby and other workers said they pay recruiters about 25 cents a day out of their salaries just to set foot inside the processing shed. Transportation in company buses is also deducted from some workers’ salaries, along with the cost of lunch from company canteens. Many workers have no contracts, and no recourse if they are hurt on the job.

Another peeler, Penupothula Ratnam, said she suffers back pain all the time from the arduous work, for which she’s paid about $3 a day.

“It’s not enough for our living,” she said, breaking into tears. Rarely does she get a day off, she said.

Many people in India struggle to survive amid endemic poverty, debt and unemployment. The women AP spoke with said this work, despite the oppressive conditions, is their only chance to avoid starvation. The economic drivers go beyond shrimp, and beyond India, to issues of globalization and Western power.

Desperately poor women told AP they weren’t paid overtime as mandated by law, in addition to not being paid India’s minimum wage. Some said they were locked inside guarded hostels when they weren’t peeling shrimp. The work was unsanitary to the point that workers’ hands were infected, and they lacked safety and hygiene protection required under Indian law. And it doesn’t meet U.S. legal food safety standards required for all seafood imports.

Dr. Sushmitha Meda, a dermatologist at a nearby government hospital in the city of Kakinada, said she treats four to five shrimp peelers every day. Some have nail fungus, caused by small cracks that allow germs to cause infections. Other women have fingers or even their entire hands darkening with frostbite. Meda said that sometimes she has to amputate.

It’s a preventable problem, she said. Cotton gloves covered with latex gloves can protect peelers’ hands, but few can afford a $3 box of gloves.

The Corporate Accountability Lab said American importers may never encounter desperate and abused shrimp peelers, because large Indian exporters invite auditors into their own state-of-the-art facilities and use them as a “showcase to foreign buyers.”

In contrast, “auditors are unlikely to audit peeling sheds,” the report said.

And while the larger corporate processing facilities appear to meet hygiene and labor standards, CAL said, there are hidden abuses at the onsite hostels where shrimp peelers are housed. CAL found workers living in “overcrowded and often unsanitary conditions under the careful surveillance of company guards,” only allowed off the premises once a month.

“No one can enter, no one can leave without permission,” labor organizer Chekkala Rajkumar, district secretary for the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, told AP about the large facilities in his region. He compared them to British colonial penal colonies. “Anyone talking about the working conditions is kicked out. It’s not a worker friendly atmosphere.” He said pregnant women sometimes miscarry because of the arduous work.

A worker peels shrimp in a tin-roofed processing shed in the hamlet of Tallarevu, in Kakinada district, in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, last February

Poor sanitation in labor-intensive peeling

At one tin-roofed processing shed, AP journalists observed dozens of women working in unsanitary and dangerous conditions. The shrimp, pulled from outdoor ponds in barrels, were swished around by hand in grimy water. Once rinsed, they were dumped onto ice-covered tables, where women stood, peeling them one shrimp at a time. Many handled shrimp with bare hands. Some women had bandages on injured fingers. Some women’s long hair dangled into the shrimp.

The shrimp at this facility were later loaded in large plastic crates into a truck with the brand “NEKKANTI” painted in large letters. Managers at the small shed said Nekkanti Sea Foods and other major brands often outsource the labor-intensive peeling and deveining work to keep down costs.

Nekkanti, however, says all its shrimp is processed in a handful of massive company-owned processing facilities approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A marketing video produced by Nekkanti, which is projecting $150 million in revenues this year, shows shrimp peelers in a spotless room, with shiny tables, and workers wearing gloves, head coverings, face masks, rubber boots and waterproof aprons.

John Ducar, an advisor to the board of Nekkanti Sea Foods, said the company had nothing to do with the peeling shed that AP visited and said their branded truck was there only because it was being leased to another company. He provided a document that said Nekkanti was paid $3,600 for the four-month lease of a truck with the license number the AP observed.

“It appears that you observed the operations of an entirely separate company,” he said.

The company named in the document did not respond to a request for comment.

Though Nekkanti had no connection to the shed or the shipment observed by the AP, Ducar said, the company will work to improve conditions at neighboring shrimp sheds and is reconsidering leasing its trucks.

U.S. trade records show Nekkanti shipped more than 726 U.S. tons of farmed shrimp from India to the U.S. in the past year, according to ImportGenius trade data. Records show shipments went to major American seafood distributors including AJC International Inc., Eastern Fish, CenSea, Jetro Cash & Carry Enterprises, King & Prince Seafood, Red Chamber Co. and Rich Products Corp. Those companies, in turn, sell Indian shrimp under popular brand names including Costar, Good & Gather, Great Value and Mrs. Friday’s at supermarkets, box stores and restaurants across the U.S.

Importers that responded to requests for comment about possible labor abuses said they would investigate, with some suspending business in the meantime.

“We at Rich Products treat these allegations with the utmost seriousness,” said the owners of frozen SeaPak brand shrimp. “We are always fully prepared to investigate any allegations and take decisive corrective measures in response to any substantiated claims.”

Erugala Baby, 51, widowed and destitute, wipes tears from her eyes during an interview at her residence in Bhogapuram, Kakinada district, Andhra Pradesh

Damaging the environment

Alongside a busy highway last month, men pulled nets of shrimp from shrimp ponds that had been dug into fields and mangroves, destroying critical ecosystems. Local villagers said the growing industry hasn’t just brought abusive working conditions, it’s also damaging their environment.

The massive, murky ponds and their toxic algae, chemicals and sewage have made it impossible to grow crops and poisoned their water, they said. Investigators from CAL say antibiotic use is widespread to control disease outbreaks. Antibiotic use in shrimp farming and other agriculture can lead to rising drug-resistant infections, a growing problem in the U.S.

“Essentially, we feel lost,” said Areti Vasu, a farmer who said he was badly beaten and jailed during failed protests that sought to stop the development of a 57-acre shrimp processing and cold storage plant adjacent to his rice fields. “Our lives, our land, our farming pride, fresh air, and clean water – everything is lost. We are destined to live here in disgrace.”

Jonnalagaruvu village vice president Koyya Sampath Rao initially helped build the massive facility, ignoring warnings from environmentalists.

“Sadly their predictions came true,” he said. “Our water streams are now polluted, farmland is turning barren, yields are shrinking, and the night air is thick with pollutants.”

Official complaints about a lack of environmental impact studies and coastal regulation violations have usually been dismissed by Indian authorities.

Among the trucks being loaded with the shrimp at a pond in the village was one with a large sign: “Wellcome KingWhite.” In the past year Wellcome shipped 3,800 tons of shrimp to the U.S., according to ImportGenius trade data. The records show these include distributors Great American Seafood Co., Pacific Coral Seafood and Ore-Cal. The Great American Seafood Co. says on its website that it sells to dozens of food suppliers and supermarket chains, from Sysco and US Foods to Whole Foods and WinCo Foods.

Sysco, the nation’s largest food distributor, has imported in the past from both Nekkanti and Wellcome. A spokesperson said they stopped doing business with Wellcome in 2022 after the Indian firm “refused to allow us to conduct a required social responsibility audit in their facility.” Wellcome did not respond to requests for comment.

The Sysco spokesperson said the company suspended receipt of any products from Nekkanti after AP’s query this month, and would immediately begin an investigation.

Sysco “will continue to hold all its suppliers to the highest standards of labor and human rights,” the company said in a statement.

Unfair trade practices

Most American consumers say they would rather buy U.S.-produced food. But with only 5% of shrimp sold in the U.S. caught there, shrimp from the U.S. can be harder to locate and considerably more costly.

In the 1970s, the U.S. led the world in shrimp production. Shrimp was considered a delicacy. Diners were served expensive shrimp cocktails with less than a dozen shellfish harvested off the East, West and Gulf coasts.

Over the next two decades, the use of inexpensive shrimp-farming technologies soared in Asia, and imports flooded the market. Today in the U.S., where more than 5 pounds of shrimp per person is eaten per year, consumers expect all-you-can-eat shrimp buffets and $10 frozen bags at their markets.

There are a number of systems failing to prevent shrimp that is produced by forced labor or causes environmental damage from arriving on Americans’ dinner tables.

For one, there is plenty of shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico, but U.S. fishing communities have stricter, and more costly, labor and environmental standards than their Asian counterparts. Last year officials in the region sought financial relief, asking for state and federal declarations of a fishery disaster because they cannot compete with cheap imports that make up 95% of the market.

The request is pending. If approved, boat owners typically receive checks for a few thousand dollars, well below their losses.

“The many small, family-owned commercial shrimping businesses in Louisiana are facing an unprecedented risk of collapse due to the devastating impacts that large volumes of imported shrimp are having on domestic shrimp dockside prices,” said then-Gov. John Bel Edwards last fall.

U.S. Customs and Border protection is responsible for blocking imports of products produced with forced labor, and in recent years has prohibited imports of some cotton from China, gold from Democratic Republic of Congo, and sugar from the Dominican Republic. No products have been prohibited from India.

Eric Choy, executive director of CBP’s office of trade, said CBP does investigate allegations of abuse.

“You’d hope that there was a magic button that you can push and then everything created by forced labor is prohibited from entering, but it’s a much harder task,” he said. “It does require us to follow the trail.”

Last year, the FDA refused entry of 51 shrimp shipments citing antibiotics; 37 of those were shrimp exported from India.

The departments of Labor and Commerce haven’t taken significant action, despite U.S. shrimpers’ complaints of unfair trade.

“For too long India has engaged in unfair trade practices causing economic damage to our domestic shrimp industry,” said Trey Pearson, president of the American Shrimp Processors Association.

U.S. firms rely on industry organizations and auditors to make sure their shrimp imports are raised and processed in a safe, legal and environmentally responsible way.

The National Fisheries Institute, America’s largest seafood trade association, works with seafood importers to improve working and environmental conditions in shrimp farming.

“Any labor abuses in the value chain are abhorrent and they need to be addressed immediately,” said NFI chief strategy officer Gavin Gibbons.

The Global Seafood Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practice stamp of approval is on almost all Indian imports, certifying the supply chain meets their high standards.

“We take these matters very seriously,” the organization said in an emailed statement.

CAL said the Best Aquaculture Practice certifications are often performative.

“Despite strong standards on paper, implementation is often weak,” said the report.

Shrimp will grow in a lab, says fisherman

Fisherman and author Paul Greenberg said he sees a future where the shrimp Americans eat is neither wild caught nor farmed: it will grow in a lab. He said the science is underway to develop those products, and because shrimp isn’t flaky like fish, it should be an easier seafood to produce with living cells.

In the meantime, he’s been trying out vegan shrimp, “the shrimp that never died.” The texture is good, he said, and the sweetness impressive.

Human rights advocates say cost-cutting from U.S. supermarkets, restaurants and wholesalers squeeze producers to provide cheaper shrimp without addressing labor and environmental conditions.

CAL says Indian companies need to pay living wages and abide by labor, health, safety and environmental laws. In addition, the organization says U.S. companies need to ensure that the price they pay for shrimp is enough for Indian exporters to treat workers equitably. And, they say, both the Indian and U.S. governments need to enforce existing laws.

“The presence of widespread labor abuses and environmental destruction in the Indian shrimp sector is undeniable,” said Allie Brudney, a CAL senior staff attorney. “U.S. restaurants and grocery stores need to purge these unethical practices from their supply chains.”

Ecologist Marla Valentine, who heads non-profit Oceana’s illegal fishing and transparency campaign, said consumers can help.

“You can use your dollar to make a difference,” she said. “When this isn’t a lucrative business anymore, it will stop.”

It has worked in the past, she said.

“Thailand has been called out for labor abuses many times, particularly regarding shrimp, and we are seeing the seafood industry and the Thai government really try to make some of those changes,” she said. “They are answering the market power, so it shows that change can happen.”


Categories Asia-Pacific Headlines