Are Californians Supporting Slave Labor When They Buy Shrimp from Costco?

Costco knowingly imports and sells Thai prawns harvested with slave labor, customers said Wednesday in a federal class action.

Lead plaintiff Monica Sud accuses the retail giant of buying farmed prawns from Southeast Asia, knowing they were produced with slave labor on unregistered "ghost ships."

Costco for years has imported prawns from a leading Thai food group, co-defendants Charoen Pokphand Foods/C.P. Food Products, and the lawsuit could affect millions of Californians, Sud's attorneys said.

"California consumers are unknowingly supporting slave labor," attorney Niall McCarthy said in a statement. "The truth needs to be exposed so consumers can make informed decisions."

The 54-page lawsuit describes fishing operations by unpaid Burmese migrants forced to work 20-hour shifts. It cites the Indonesian navy's recent capture of a ship manned by workers who said they had been sold in Thailand to fish for the feed used to fuel Thailand's booming seafood industry.

Thailand is the third-largest exporter of seafood in the world with more than $7 billion in revenue from it in 2011. It has been criticized internationally for human trafficking in its seafood industry.

Secretary of State John Kerry blasted the "enslavement of fishermen in Southeast Asia" in a recent report, and said fishermen continue to be "robbed of the most basic human rights."

The Guardian newspaper exposed slavery in the Thai fishing industry in a series of articles in 2014.

Sud seeks class certification, an injunction ordering Costco to stop selling CP Foods prawns unless they are labeled as a product of slave labor, and refunds for California customers who bought slave-produced frozen shrimp in the past four years.

"This lawsuit seeks to give Californians confidence that they are not serving slavery for dinner," said co-counsel Derek Howard.

Costco told Courthouse News the labor allegations surrounding the Thai seafood industry have been well publicized over the last year and they are looking to improve relations.

"Costco Wholesale has been working with and will continue to work with various stakeholders (including the Thai government, other retailers, and Thai industry) to address the issues that have surfaced. In the meantime, all of our customers know that if they are dissatisfied with any purchase from Costco Wholesale they can return the item for a full refund," the company said.

Attorney McCarthy is with Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, of Burlingame.


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