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On the trail of child labor in Bangladesh

By Siddharth Kara
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Child labor in Bangladesh
  • Siddharth Kara is in Bangladesh documenting human trafficking and child labor.
  • Kara focused much of the week on the shrimp industry in the region.
  • Kara will travel to urban and rural regions in several south Asian countries

Editors Note: Harvard human trafficking fellow Siddharth Kara is undertaking a research trip around South Asia, looking at issues of forced labor, trafficking and child bondage. He will be getting access to the heart of the problem, and telling readers what he has discovered every week over the next ten weeks.

Mushiganj, Bangladesh -- This week I want to write to you about shrimp. Portions of the shrimp industry in Bangladesh involve almost every aspect of contemporary forms of labor exploitation: child labor, bonded labor, forced labor, and indirectly human trafficking.

I have traveled to the farthest tip of the southwest quadrant of Bangladesh, beyond which lies the uninhabitable Sundarban mangrove forest.

The shrimp supply chain starts here and it possesses three steps: baby shrimp collection, shrimp farming, and shrimp processing.

In the pouring rain, I took a rickety wooden boat into the muddy-brown Kholpetua river. Soon, I came upon more than four hundred smaller wooden boats. Each had one or two shrimp collectors who spread a fine blue mesh in the water. Once an hour they pulled out the net out for the yield.

"I catch thirty or forty baby shrimp each hour," a twelve year-old boy named Abdul told me.

Children like Abdul will spend most of the day collecting shrimp, then return to shore to sell their catch to the shrimp farmers. Roughly seven out of ten collectors I counted were children. They make around $0.01 for each baby shrimp they sell.

The second step in the process is shrimp farming. Fifteen years ago, large commercial interests overran this area with shrimp farming, so there is no other option for the local inhabitants.

Black tiger shrimp are the main crop, and they require saline water. This means nothing else can grow -- no agriculture, horticulture, or land for grazing animals.

Shrimp farmers like Aziz have to borrow money from the landowner in order to lease land for shrimp farming.

"The landowner charges me fifty percent interest," Aziz told me.

This makes it difficult for Aziz to earn enough money each season to pay back his debts, forcing him to undertake unpaid labor for the landowner during the off season. In other words, he is a shrimp farming bonded laborer.

Aziz harvests the baby shrimp for roughly three months until they are fully grown. He can sell top grade shrimp for $0.13 each. After expenses there is very little left over, especially when faced with a ruined crop thanks to natural disasters like Hurricane Aila.

Giant shrimp farms require far fewer people to manage than say, a rice field. This means that tens of thousands of farmers are now out of land and livelihood.

This scenario is a human trafficker's dream.

"I took one offer with an agent" Mohammad told me, "He said he can get me work for twenty thousand taka ($285) each month."

Mohammad was presented with a contract from a man who purported to be a government authorized agent for migrant workers.

After eight months in construction in the Middle East, he was paid for one month of work and told the company was closing and he had to leave the dorms. He was on the streets for weeks before an NGO helped him return home.

The last step in the shrimp supply chain is the exceedingly secretive shrimp processing. Big companies control this step, which includes sorting, de-heading, de-scaling, freezing, and shipping.

I heard many anecdotes of child labor and forced labor inside the processing plants, but my attempts to verify this were unsuccessful. No one would speak to me, and even when approaching some plants by foot, I was met by armed guards who told me to leave.

One plant did open its doors, but I did not find anything untoward, other than the fact that the workers were paid only between $1.30 and $2.00 per day for a company that will make almost $8 million this year.

Overall, Bangladesh shrimp processors exported approximately $550 million in shrimp last year. Almost one-half went to the EU and about one-fourth to the U.S.

So remember, each time you bar-b-que your shrimp this summer, it may have arrived to you by virtue of forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking, or a child like Abdul at the bottom of the supply chain, who earns no more than $0.01 for that delicious shrimp you will enjoy with cocktail sauce and a frosty beer.