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OM in the News: Your Cat, Slavery, and the Seafood Supply Chain

July 29, 2015
Living quarters on the boats are hot and cramped, with crew sleeping just 2 hours between shifts

Living quarters on the boats are hot and cramped, with crew sleeping just 2 hours between shifts

If your cat eats Meow Mix, Fancy Feast, or Iams, there is a good chance you are supporting “sea slaves”, men and boys put in forced labor in Thailand for cheap fish, reports The New York Times (July 27, 2015) in a front page expose.  The U.S. is the biggest customer of Thai fish, and pet food is among the fastest growing exports from Thailand. The average pet cat eats 30 pounds of fish per year, double that of a typical American.

Though there is growing pressure for more accountability in seafood companies’ supply chains, virtually no attention has focused on the labor that supplies the seafood that people and pets eat. Much of the catch is destined for canneries such as Thai Union Frozen Products, that country’s largest seafood company, which shipped 28 million pounds of pet food to the U.S. in 2014.

The misery endured by sea slaves is not uncommon in the maritime world. Labor abuse at sea can be so severe that its victims might as well be captives from a bygone era. Those who fled recounted horrific violence: the sick cast overboard, the defiant beheaded, the insubordinate sealed for days below deck in a dark, fetid fishing hold. The harsh practices have intensified in recent years because of lax maritime labor laws and an insatiable global demand for seafood.

Officials point to a greater reliance on long-haul fishing, in which vessels stay at sea, sometimes for years, far from the reach of authorities. Government intervention is rare. While the U.N. prohibits forced labor, Thailand does little to counter misconduct on the high seas. U.N. and rights organizations accuse Thai officials of taking bribes from traffickers, and migrants often report being rescued by Thai police from one smuggler only to be resold to another.

Classroom discussion questions:

1.Why can’t pet food makers like Purina eliminate this worker abuse?

2. Describe the pet seafood supply chain.

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