In 2015, dozens of trafficked Burmese migrants, most of them women, were found captive in shrimp peeling sheds in Thailand, a country that for much of the prior decade had been the preferred supplier for major Western supermarkets.

A prawn processing plant in Thailand where the Environmental Justice Foundation released a report in 2013 about severe labor abuses in this industry.The Environmental Justice Foundation

The story about the trapped women grabbed media attention globally, spurring a series of sweeping reforms by the Thai government to better protect workers from such abuses. But these reforms came with a price, leading to escalating labor costs in Thailand right when nearly half of the country’s shrimp production was wiped out by a disease.

India emerged to fill the void, with help from its government which bolstered subsidies and loosened laws restricting foreign investment. By 2021, India was exporting more than $5 billion of shrimp globally, and was responsible for nearly a quarter of the world’s shrimp exports.

Once a delicacy saved for special banquets or weddings, shrimp became a staple at all-you-can-eat seafood buffets at American seafood chains largely because of cheaper labor in developing countries like India and Thailand and the rise of aquaculture. To keep up with this insatiable demand, “the U.S. imported billions of pounds of shrimp annually from places like Thailand despite evidence of human rights abuses in their fishing industries,” said a 2018 piece in the Hastings Environmental Law Journal.

But labor researchers, unions, academics and industry consultants have warned that the same human rights concerns discovered in Thailand were likely to appear in other low-cost settings like India, partly because private auditing or certification firms are paid by the companies they are supposed to police. “Given the similarities in the comparable basic structures of the supply chains and the inability of developing countries’ governments to regulate appropriate labor standards, it is in fact highly likely that the problems that have been documented in Bangladesh and Thailand are also present in the other primary shrimp-exporting countries,” said Humanity United, a non-profit that researches human rights abuses, in a 2013 report.

Another report produced in 2019 by Praxis Labs, a research firm focused on international development, concluded: “Until the costs associated with ethical sourcing are built into the product price, the current business model based on high volume at low price remains an inherent challenge to advancing human rights.”

Meanwhile, the movement of the shrimp industry internationally has happened while shrimp farmers in the U.S. increasingly struggle to compete with the cheaper labor costs and less stringent food safety or environmental regulations that can be found abroad. In the 1980s, roughly half of the shrimp eaten by Americans was imported. By 2023, imports accounted for about 90 percent.

This month, the Corporate Accountability Lab, an advocacy organization that uses litigation to press human rights issues, released a report providing further proof of the widespread use in India of captive labor, hidden peeling sheds, wage theft and inhumane living conditions in the industry. “These abuses have been hidden during the sector’s impressive rise over the past fifteen years but are now exposed and must not be further ignored.”