Would you rather eat shrimp peeled by slaves, or by robots?

Originally published January 21, 2016 for Seattle Globalist.

A photo from the Gregor Jonsson, Inc website shows their shrimp peeling machine in action. According to the website each machine can peel 5000 shrimp an hour.

Seafood processing is an industry sorely in need of reforms to remedy rampant global human rights violations.

If you try to reconcile your eating habits with social justice values, you might have already cut our country’s favorite seafood out of your diet — especially if you caught wind of the AP’s startling investigation last month linking slavery in Thai shrimp peeling factories to popular American grocers.

But this slave labor in Thailand might not be around much longer. As it turns out, the technology to displace the manual labor of peeling shrimp already exists.

The machines are in use in more industrialized countries, and there are several businesses taking advantage of the opportunity. The company Cabin Plant from Denmark describes their mechanized process as follows:

“The robot picks the products individually and uses its multifunction tool to perform all the process steps: A cutting tool removes the head and tail (only the head for shrimps). A suction tool is inserted to remove the innards….The robot places the fully processed, properly aligned products into the package that is currently being filled and is also moving continuously along the conveyor.”

Others are on the move as well. Alibaba’s “best selling” shrimp peeling machines starts at only a thousand dollars. And Gregor Jonssen, Inc. claims their machine can peel 100 shrimp per minute eight different ways.

Recent research out of Oxford University found the risk of job loss in the U.S. for “fisheries and agriculture manual workers” to be 92.5% by 2030. This number is built on the finding that repetitive jobs easily defined by an algorithm that don’t require significant complex human interaction are the most likely to be automated.

The peeling, deveining, and packing of shrimp certainly fits the bill as repetitive and simple — the work is essentially the same in every country — so the risk of automation in the U.S. could be the same globally.

But automation of the global shrimp peeling industry will not be gender-neutral.

The technological changes that are coming impact women the most because women make up to 90 percent of workers in seafood processing globally. This is particularly true in Thailand, where The Asia Foundation found that women perform most of the processing of shrimp, like the peeling and deveining that is done before shrimp is packaged, frozen, and shipped to grocery stores.

Automation of shrimp processing then means that these women will have to find new work, in a world where opportunities and pay for women in the workforce are already inequitable.

So will that automation actually happen?

A recent look at robotics in the meatpacking industry found that the industry just isn’t ready for automation yet. Why? Because the immigrant and refugee labor in meatpacking is still so cheap.

“Workers are really cheaper than machines,” anthropologist Don Stull told NPR recently. “Machines have to be maintained. They have to be taken good care of. And that’s not really true of workers.”

The sentiment behind Don Stull’s words rings loud and clear.

Unfortunately, if there’s anything we’ve learned about women and wages, it’s that women’s work is poorly valued globally. The idea that workers don’t have to be taken care of is a prevailing mindset that leads to illegally low wages and even slavery conditions that the AP report exposed. The Asia Foundation also found significant human rights problems with migrant and child labor in the Thai shrimp industry.

So long as the labor of women, migrants, and children is cheaper than machines, those jobs are “safe.” But what factors impact that tipping point?

It appears that shrimp processing machines are in demand globally, but for Thai seafood processors, the $1,000 price tag for a machine would have to outlast and outperform the women it replaces.

There could be a humanitarian benefit to replacing women with machines — if there are no more women working in the shrimp processing factories, then there’s no more slave labor, right?

That could actually be a selling point for the Thai industries, because on the consumer side, shrimp-loving Americans’ purchasing has already been influenced by lots of advice from journalists:

A few years ago, the push to refuse imported shrimp was focused on evidence that mangroves have been cut down to create aquaculture ponds. But the proposed solution was buying U.S. shrimp at a higher cost, and that only works on the environmentalist elite consumers. More recently, the public has been told they can feel patriotic about avoiding imported shrimp and only buying American and this will end slave labor.

Ending slave labor with your purchasing power is theoretically possible, but know that the jobs are already transferring from people to machines. Creating a preference for American shrimp — where the worker wages are higher and increasing, may just drive the American seafood industry to invest more in automation. This is already happening in seafood processing plants in Alaska in response to wage hikes.

“We’ll have people who, as they retire out of the industry, we just won’t replace them,” says Alyeska Seafoods plant manager Don Goodfellow in an interview with KUCB. “Machinery will take over a lot of those jobs.” He estimated 30% of seafood processing jobs in Alaska will be lost to automation.

Even the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) don’t address the reality of technological advancements on the workforce expected by 2030. For example, Goal Number Eight for decent work and economic growth has this target:

“By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value.”

Achieving this target seems unlikely when you compare it to predictions that many current jobs will become automated; workers will not have the necessary skills or expertise to easily adjust to the automation of their industry.

And the authors of a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization report on the coming changes in fisheries and aquaculture globally also seem to have no awareness of how technological advancements will change the industry. Since the FAO finds that the seafood industry supports the livelihoods of 10 to 12 per cent of the world’s population, foreseeing these changes and helping workers transition is crucial to the social fabric of coastal communities.

The industry doesn’t provide decent work or equal pay for the millions of mostly Asian and African women who work in it now — and it won’t in 2030, once many of them have been displaced by technology.

So we must anticipate the changes, and adjust our gender lens to look for solutions.

Experts like Nikita Gopal have already identified some impacts of automation on job opportunities for women in a related but slightly different part of the seafood chain, noting that increased automation in fish landings has “meant loss of employment for the fisherwomen, who once were the custodians of fish after landing.”

She told me via email that automation of seafood processing in India is currently very low, and even labor shortages occur during peak season. So far, she says, mechanization has impacted the fishing side of the sector more than the processing side.

“To equip women to meet the changes taking place with regard to electronic devices and applications, skill development training opportunities must be made available,” Gopal urges in the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers recent newsletter.

Women could transition from shrimp peeling by hand to building and maintaining shrimp processing machines. After all, women who have spent their lives with seafood in their hands know the product best.

So maybe it’s not enough to refuse to buy imported shrimp and wash our hands clean of any human rights issues. Instead we should focus on empowering women to lead the way and create the changes we hope to see in the seafood processing industry.