In the late 1980s, Rizia Khatun saw how her largely agricultural village of Khagraghat, in southern Satkhira district, was losing arable land to a new, burgeoning industry — commercial shrimp cultivation.
The new form of livelihood turned many poor landless villagers, like Rizia’s parents, from farmers to shrimp farmworkers.
“When I was 10, I used to join my parents as a worker in local shrimp farms. I studied up to grade five, but I was forced to drop out because my parents were too poor to afford my education. I was married at the age of 14,” said Rizia, now 35 and a mother of four.
An irregular worker, Rizia works eight or nine hours a day standing in tepid farm water up to her neck to catch shrimp. For this, she can make a meager 100 taka (US$ 1.28) per day, with no bonus or weekly leave.
“Although we get paid on a daily basis, our employers are abusive. They want us to work more but pay less, but they make big profits,” she said.
Her husband and two sons also are shrimp farmworkers; her daughters have been married off. None of the children attended school.
“We don’t have work everyday, so it’s very difficult to manage two full meals a day for our family. For poor people like us, sending children to school is a luxury,” she added.
Almost every month, Rizia, her husband and two sons suffer from skin diseases including rashes and bruises, largely due to long exposure to salty water without protective gear such as gloves and boots, which the farm owners are supposed to provide but never do.
Exploitation and abuses
The high demand for cheap shrimp in Europe and America has shaped the Bangladesh shrimp industry since the 1980s; the country is among the world’s top 10 shrimp exporters. The industry is the country’s second-largest foreign currency earner after the garment industry, with an estimated US$1 billion a year in export income, accounting for four percent of annual GDP.
About 1.2 million workers and an estimated 4.8 million dependents, mostly the poorest sections of coastal communities, rely on shrimp cultivation for a living, but the highly profitable industry has done very little to reduce poverty, hunger and to foster development.
In a 2014 report, Impossibly Cheap: Abuse and Injustice in Bangladesh’s Shrimp Industry, the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation said that the industry is plagued by hazardous working conditions, child labor, bonded labor, withholding of pay, excessively low wages, health and safety violations, restricted union activities, verbal abuse and excessive hours.
The global shrimp industry is estimated at US$17 billion, making shrimp the most valuable fisheries product in the world. However, until recently, international media paid little attention to abuses in the industry. The issue came under the spotlight in June 2014 when the Guardian newspaper reported on human trafficking and use of slave labor in the Thai shrimp industry and exposed complicity of major international retailers, including Walmart, Costco and Tesco, prompting outrage in Europe and the United States.
In Bangladesh, the industry is also blamed for collateral damage to the environment.
“From the beginning until now, the shrimp industry has been largely unregulated and full of conflicts. Big shrimp companies often forcefully bought and leased lands from coastal farmers,” said Reznur Rahman, a researcher at the Dhaka-based nongovernmental organization Nijera Kori (We Do It Ourselves), which works for the rights of shrimp workers.
“There have been dozens of cases of clashes and deaths; they never make the news because shrimp company owners are politically and financially influential,” said Rahman.
“We have been trying to unionize workers, but we have failed amid strong resistance from the companies. Moreover, the government has stated that the shrimp industry is very important for the country and that punitive action will be taken if anyone tries to cause unrest in the industry,” he added.
Rahman argued whether shrimp farming could really foster prosperity for poor villagers.
“Satkhira is a shrimp farming hub, but nationwide the district is considered the poorest. Shrimp farming has yielded a great fortune for a handful of people, but it has caused disaster for millions,” he added.
Loss of forests and agricultural lands
The 10,000-square-kilometer Sunderbans mangrove that spans Bangladesh and India, has long been a natural shield for Bangladesh in the southern coastal region.
However, environmental activists say one of the major causes of the rapid loss of the Sunderbans is widespread clearing of forest for shrimp farming.
“People destroy the forests without realizing future consequences. Today, the Sunderbans is half its original size due to decades of human greed,” said Philip Gain, director of the Dhaka-based Society for Environment and Human Development.
The mangrove has lost the equivalent of more than 80,000 hectares since British rule, Gain said.
“The most damaging factor has been unscientific and unregulated shrimp farming,” he said.
Jagdish Mondol, a Caritas field officer in Satkhira notes that shrimp farming increases the risk of natural disasters.
“Shrimp farmers damage river embankments to get salt water to their ponds. This makes the embankment weak and leaves it vulnerable to collapse in a storm or flood,” says Mondol.
“Due to the shrimp farms, high salinity in the water is common. That’s why our houses get damaged, our crops and trees die away, but there is no stopping it,” he said.
Denial of abuses
Shrimp farm owners deny abuse allegations, and say the industry is not responsible for environmental damage.
“Hundreds of people work on my farm,” said Jobed Ali, a shrimp farm owner in Satkhira. “These people otherwise wouldn’t have food to eat because there is no alternative livelihood.”
Ali said he believes shrimp farming has done little damage to the local environment.
The government has fined several farms for violating health and safety rules and is trying to regulate the shrimp sector, says Abdul Wadud, a fisheries officer in Satkhira.
“We are working to fix a minimum wage for shrimp farmworkers but it will take some time. People in this area are used to salinity, so they don’t have diseases because of it, but some workers from processing factories reported skin diseases due to hazardous working conditions,” he said.
An uncertain life
Due to the seasonal nature of the work, shrimp farmworkers often try to eke out a living from alternative jobs.
Gangadhar Das, 50, a Hindu, makes baskets and chairs from bamboo while in between farming seasons, but he needs to collect raw material from far away.
“Due to salinity, we can’t plant and grow trees. If I want to collect bamboo for cane work, I need to go to the town, which is very far. We can’t raise cows and goats because there is no grass,” he said.
“Shrimp farming has destroyed our traditional agricultural system because of the increased salinity; our houses gets damaged and we suffer from diseases including diarrhea, dysentery and skin diseases,” he added.
“For most coastal villagers, life is awful and uncertain. We have been forced into it, but we can’t get rid off it,” Gangadhar said.