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Shrimp slaves wait for justice 8 months after Thai raid

Nearly eight months ago, migrant worker Tin Nyo Win thought he was doing the right thing — the only thing — to help free his pregnant wife from slavery inside a Thai shrimp peeling shed. He ran for help and prompted police to raid the business, freeing nearly 100 Burmese laborers, including child slaves.

Yet the couple ended up first in jail and then held inside a government shelter, even though they were victims of trafficking. That’s where they remain today with a few other workers from the Gig Peeling Factory, waiting to testify in a slow-moving court case while their former employers are free on bail. Angry and frustrated, they just want to go home.

“I feel like I’ve been victimized three times. Once in the shrimp shed, the second time in … jail and now again in the shelter,” Tin Nyo Win said on a mobile phone smuggled in by another Burmese worker.

“Even prisoners know how many years or months they will be in prison, but we don’t know anything about how many years or months we’ll be stuck here,” he added. “It’s worse than prison.”

Recently, Thailand was lifted off the U.S. State Department’s blacklist, where it had been listed for the past two years as one of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders alongside North Korea, Syria, Iran and others. Some activists saw the upgrade as a political move by Washington to appease an ally, and 21 labor, anti-trafficking and environmental groups expressed their disappointment in an open letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.

The Thai government lobbied hard ahead of the announcement, saying new laws have been passed to help protect victims. The government also said that 241 human traffickers were sentenced in 2015, and 34 officials are facing prosecution for involvement or complicity in the trade.

But critics say low-level people or brokers from other countries are typically the ones jailed instead of Thai business owners, corrupt police or high-ranking officials.

“Debt bondage for migrants is still the norm, and police abuse and extortion happens on a daily basis all over the country,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in Bangkok. “While it’s good that prosecutions are going up, the reality is that we’re still talking about the tip of the iceberg here.”

The country has been under international pressure to clean up its $7 billion annual seafood export industry, including the threat of a seafood import ban from the European Union. An Associated Press investigation last year uncovered a slave island with migrant fishermen locked in a cage and buried under fake Thai names. The reporting, which led to more than 2,000 men being freed, followed the slave-caught seafood to Thailand and on to American dinner tables.

The investigation also focused on the Gig Peeling shed in Samut Sakhon, just outside of Bangkok, where Tin Nyo Win and his wife, Mi San, were forced to work 16 hours a day. They had to rip the guts, heads and tails off shrimp that entered supply chains feeding some of America’s biggest companies, including Red Lobster, Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and most major U.S. supermarkets. Many companies have said they are taking steps to prevent labor abuses.

Col. Prasert Siriphanapitat, the Samut Sakhon deputy police commander, said witness testimony began in April in the Gig shed case against three Thai defendants and two Burmese brokers. Only one Burmese suspect has been located. He added that new laws mandate quick prosecution of human trafficking, meaning the Gig case will likely be closed by the end of the year. But Tin Nyo Win said he and his wife have not spoken to a prosecutor or been informed about the case’s progress.

Suwalee Jaiharn, director of the country’s Anti-Trafficking in Persons division, said Thailand’s eight shelters are there to protect undocumented workers and denied that those housed inside are prohibited from leaving. She added, however, that some victims of trafficking are more closely monitored if they are expected to testify in criminal cases.

“We are protection centers and not detention centers,” she said. “There is an exception when some victims are witnesses in human trafficking cases. We have to give them extra protection.”

Suwalee said Thailand’s laws allow victims to testify ahead of their trials so they can go home quickly, or stay and work in the country. But aid workers said these options are rarely made available to migrant workers, leaving victims to wait in facilities far from home.

“Somebody’s always ordering you, and you are always under watch by someone and having to get permission all the time. This is totally what trafficking victims would have gone through while they were being trafficked,” said Ohnmar Ei Ei Chaw, senior case adviser at the Bangkok-based nonprofit Project Issara, which assists trafficking victims. “It is very difficult for them to feel empowered and like their needs are being met.”

For the first few months that Tin Nyo Win and Mi San were in the shelter, they said they were not allowed to have a phone. They couldn’t leave the shelter unaccompanied. They couldn’t work.

“If victims see that when they come forward they are kept in government shelters but not given freedom to work and move around, then what incentive do they have to come forward?” said Susan Coppedge, the U.S. anti-trafficking ambassador.

Following a supervised interview with AP at the shelter, Tin Nyo Win spoke candidly on a call. He said restrictions eased a couple of months ago, and victims can now have a phone and go outside the compound unsupervised. However, only eight people from the Gig case are still in the shelter, after 12 undocumented workers ran away. Those who remain worry they will never be compensated for unpaid wages and the abuses they suffered.

“My sister is in another shelter. She is 17 years old, and we have no chance to see each other. I’ve asked permission to see her many times, but I’m not allowed,” said Hkin Tet Mun, 31, adding that phone calls to her sibling are also prohibited. “I’m worried about her, and my sister wants to stay with me.”

Win Kai, 19, said he’s also desperate to leave, but feels trapped.

“My family is so worried about me,” he said by phone. “I don’t want to stay in the shelter. Can you help me quickly?”

Tin Nyo Win’s wife, now seven months pregnant, rubs the growing bump under her bright flowered shirt. She yearns to have the baby at home. But her husband says he won’t go — even if it means missing the birth of his child.

“We want to show the boss that we are really victims, and we want to show this to the court,” he said. “We want to see justice carried out.”

Did slaves peel your frozen shrimp? A guide to the issue and what to do

Enslaved migrant workers and children are ripping the heads, tails, shells and guts off shrimp at processing factories in Thailand, according to an investigation by The Associated Press.

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.

Q: How do I know if my shrimp or other seafood is tainted by labor abuses?

A: That’s a big part of the problem. Most companies do not make their supply chains public. And even if they did, there are many places for abuses to occur that are not documented or take place far from any type of scrutiny. For example, slaves have been forced to work on boats catching trash fish used for feed at shrimp farms, and migrants have been brought across borders illegally and taken straight to shrimp sheds where they are locked inside and forced to peel. Fishing boats are going farther and farther from shore, sometimes not docking for months or years at a time, creating floating prisons.

Q: What shrimp brands and companies did the AP find linked to tainted supply chains in its investigation?

A: Cape Gourmet; Certifresh; Chef’s Net; Chicken of the Sea; Chico; CoCo; Darden (owner of Olive Garden Italian Kitchen, Longhorn Steakhouse, Bahama Breeze Island Grille, Seasons 52 Fresh Grill, The Capital Grille, Eddie V’s Prime Seafood and Yard House); Delicasea; Fancy Feast cat food; Farm Best; Fisherman’s Wharf; Winn-Dixie; Fishmarket; Great American; Great Atlantic; Great Catch; Harbor Banks; KPF; Market Basket; Master Catch; Neptune; Portico; Publix; Red Lobster; Royal Tiger; Royal White; Sea Best; Sea Queen; Stater Bros.; Supreme Choice; Tastee Choice; Wal-Mart; Waterfront Bistro; Wellness canned cat food; Whole Catch; Wholey; Xcellent.

Q: AP reporters visited supermarkets chosen at random in all 50 states. Where did they find shrimp linked to tainted supply chains in its investigation?

A: Acme Markets; Albertsons; Aldi; Bi-Lo; Carrs-Safeway; Cash Wise; Crest Foods; Cub Foods; D’Agostino Supermarket; Dan’s Supermarket; Dollar General; Edwards Food Giant; Family Dollar; Foodland; Fred Meyer; Giant Eagle; Harris-Teeter; H-E-B; Hy-Vee; Jerry’s Foods; Jewel-Osco; Jons International Marketplace; Kroger; Lowes Foods; Mariano’s; Market Basket; Marsh Supermarkets; Martin’s Super Markets; McDade’s Market; Pavilions; Petco; Piggly Wiggly; Price Chopper; Publix; Ralphs; Randall’s Food Market; Redner’s Warehouse Markets; Russ’s Market; Safeway; Save Mart; Schnucks; Shaws; ShopRite; Smart & Final; Sprouts Farmers Market; Stater Bros.; Stop & Shop; Sunshine Foods; Target; Van’s Thriftway; Vons; Wal-Mart; Whole Foods; Winn-Dixie.

Q: Thailand has been in the news a lot lately with problems linked to human trafficking in its seafood industry. Why is this still an issue?

A: Thailand is one of the world’s biggest seafood exporters, and relies heavily on migrant workers from poor neighboring countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. These laborers often are misled by brokers in their home countries and illegally brought to Thailand with promises of good-paying jobs. They are then sold onto fishing boats or put into seafood processing plants where they become trapped and forced to work long hours for little or no money. Thailand has repeatedly vowed to crack down on the abuses. It has created new laws and is helping to register undocumented workers, but arrests and prosecutions are still rare.

Q: What are buyers and governments doing to try to stop slave-tainted seafood from reaching their countries?

A: The U.S. State Department has blacklisted Thailand for the past two years for its dismal human rights record, placing it among the world’s worst offenders such as North Korea and Syria. However, it has not issued sanctions. The European Union put out a “yellow card” warning earlier this year that tripled seafood import tariffs, and is expected to decide next month whether to impose an outright ban on products. Companies such as Nestle have vowed to force change after conducting their own audits and finding that their Thai suppliers were abusing and enslaving workers. Others are working with rights groups to monitor their supply chains and ensure laborers are treated fairly and humanely.