Leading US Grocery Stores Sell Fish Caught by Slaves

A year-long AP study found that leading US grocery stores—including Wal-Mart, Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway, and more—sell fish that were caught by slaves.

The Associated Press interviewed dozens of slaves, most of whom are Burmese, who are being held on Benjina, an Indonesian island.

AP correspondent Martha Mendoza told NPR that, when the workers realized a reporter spoke Burmese, “they began calling out, asking for help, and explaining that they were trapped and that they were being beaten and that they were enslaved.”

These slaves endure unspeakably horrific, hellish conditions. The report indicates that many

  • are locked in cages barely big enough to lie down in;
  • get only a few bites of rice and curry to eat each day;
  • must drink dirty water;
  • work 20-22 hour shifts, with no days off; and
  • are physically abused.
Slaves working in Benjina, Indonesia in November 2014  CREDIT: Dita Alangkara/AP

Slaves working in Benjina, Indonesia in November 2014
CREDIT: Dita Alangkara/AP

Some had not heard from their families for 10 years. NPR explains:

How did the men wind up in this modern-day form of slavery? In some cases, they were lured by promises of a job by brokers in Burma, Mendoza says. The men had pledged to pay the brokers a fee for finding them the job, but when they arrived, they found out the work was in fishing, which they hadn’t signed up for, she says. “And they were obliged to not only pay back the broker fee but now they’re being told they must pay for food and shelter as they work 22-hour days. The debt becomes bottomless.”

Others were kidnapped and forced to work. Still others signed up for the fishing work but decided it was not for them “because they weren’t getting paid and it was a terrible situation,” she says.

The fish they catch get sold at high prices in the US. AP tracked down the ships on which the fish were moved and found companies sell them to the aforementioned companies.

Moreover, the fish is found in common brands of cat food as well, including Iams, Meow Mix, Fancy Feast, and more.

In other words, the most prominent grocery store franchises in the US, constituting some of the largest corporations on the planet, make billions upon billions of dollars profiting off of not just exploited workers, but literal 21st-century slaves.

Why and how can this happen in the 21st century? Because these kinds of injustice are an inherent part of the global economic system. Corporations will do anything they can—including enslave human beings—in order to maximize profit. This is not necessarily because they are run by moralless, heartless CEOs, but simply because the capitalist system mandates that they do so, lest they be defeated by a competitor which engages in the immoral behavior in which they refuse to engage.

The fact of the matter is that capitalism is and has always been founded on slave labor. As Marx famously wrote in 1867, in Capital, Volume 1,

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.