Photo at a local QFC showing product of Thailand prawns. These little signs are all over town.
  • bk
  • Photo at a local QFC showing "product of Thailand" prawns. These little signs are all over town.

Over the past few hours, the Guardian has been dropping story after video after animation about slavery in the Thai fishing industry.

The short version:

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, the Guardian can reveal.

A six-month investigation has established that large numbers of men bought and sold like animals and held against their will on fishing boats off Thailand are integral to the production of prawns (commonly called shrimp in the US) sold in leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco...

"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.

How bad is it? Answer: very bad.

Anti-slavery activist Kevin Bales has calculated that relative to measurable assets through the ages – for example, the price of land and cattle – a slave today typically costs 95% less than at the height of the original slave trade...

Today, a slave on a Thai boat who tries to rebel, or is no longer fit for slave work, risks being executed and thrown overboard – even, in one incident, torn limb from limb. In a 2009 UN survey (pdf), 59% of migrants trafficked on to Thai boats reported having seen a fellow worker murdered.

How did this happen? Answer: weak governments plus strong capitalists equals a libertarian nightmare.

Violence or the threat of violence is needed to enslave people. People lose their freedom when the law cannot protect them or chooses not to do so. The globalisation of trade has not been accompanied by a parallel extension of the rule of law transnationally. Neither have the institutions needed to enforce the law across jurisdictions been expanded. Slavery in Thailand's fishing sector thrives courtesy of corruption among police and local politicians. Where slavery has been uncovered in the western European end of supply chains, it has taken root thanks to an absence of enforcement. The state has been rolled back, and the institutions that mediated between powerless individuals and the force of the market have been weakened.

Charoen Pokphand Foods (CPF) is considered Thailand's largest agribusiness firm, reinforcing what the director of Anti-Slavery International said above: If you're buying Thai shrimp, you're culpable. Of course, it's not just fish. As the Guardian's intro to the series points out: "Slavery was the engine of emerging capitalism."

Check out the whole series.