Ramya Paew was more like a fortress than a factory, with 16-foot-high barbed wire capped walls, an armed force and an extensive internal closed-circuit television system. Behind the walls, the police found a scene that one report described as 'little short of medieval,' with hundreds of workers literally trapped inside the compound, living in squalid conditions, forced to work long hours, and subjected to physical and sexual intimidation...Women and girls were stripped naked and publicly beaten as a form of punishment.

— From "The Degradation of Work: the True Cost of Shrimp"

As Lowcountry shrimpers set the nets, getting ready for the May opening of what many of them consider a make-or-break season, a new report claims Asian factory workers live as slaves while peeling hundreds of millions of pounds of the shellfish to sell in the United States cheaper than the local catch.

The price of that iced, imported shrimp at the fish counter isn't as pretty as it looks, said the human rights advocate that just released "The Degradation of Work: the True Cost of Shrimp."

It describes factories in Thailand where illegal migrants, threatened with debt or deportation, work long hours for little money, crowded in "sweatshop" conditions behind walls and fences, beaten, sexually abused or humiliated when they don't meet demands. The lower cost of imported shrimp, a $13 billion industry worldwide, is tied to that cheap labor, the report said.

Most of the shrimp eaten in the United States is imported — everything from frozen products to "fresh" catch that doesn't have its origin labeled. Thailand supplies more than a third of that shrimp. Lowcountry shrimpers say cheaper imports undercut the price they can get at the dock and, along with rising costs, are to blame for devastating a traditional Lowcountry industry that has lost four-fifths of its boats since the 1980s.

As the report is released, Lowcountry shrimpers face fuel bills from $2,000 to

$4,000 just to launch for the first day. With dock prices below $3 per pound, and an average catch below 1,000 pounds, their numbers just won't add up to profit.

Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States; the average American is said to eat three pounds per year. But, like other seafood, nearly all of it — 80 to 90 percent — comes from foreign suppliers. South Carolina shrimp account for only 2 percent of the domestic market. One major local supplier estimated in 2007 that only 10 percent of its total seafood sales, including shrimp, was local catch.

The financial impact of foreign shrimp is not news to the S.C. Shrimper's Association.

"It's what we've been saying all along. As long as people want to buy that $3 (imported) shrimp, we can't compete. The first two or three trips this year are going to cause a lot of shrimpers to tie up their boats because they can't make enough money to pay for the fuel," said Clay Cable, of Isle of Palms, association vice president.

The report studied worker conditions in Bangladesh as well as Thailand. Together, those countries supplied more than 430 million pounds of shrimp to the United States in 2006, a business worth $2 billion. Most of it came from Thailand.

In the report, illegal migrant workers describe horrible conditions:

"At the factory they learned from the boss that the broker had taken a fee of 13,000 baht ($366) per person. They were also told that this was to be deducted from their pay. At midnight the next day they started work on their first shift, which lasted 18 hours until 6:00 p.m. the following evening. They were beaten if they did not get up or if they were not on time for work. Between the three of them, they peeled around 110 pounds of shrimp a day and received a payment of 600 baht ($17) every 15 days."

The "True Cost of Shrimp" report also highlights health and environmental concerns, such as diseased shrimp grown in crowded farm ponds and overuse of antibiotics that are banned in the United States as cancer threats. It comes on the heels of the United States and other countries cracking down on imports of Asian food products, including shrimp that contained the antibiotics.

The Solidarity Center called for stepped up food inspections, enforcement and labor protection. The group also called for seafood restaurants, retailers and consumers to demand changes.

Blessing of the Fleet

The Blessing of the Fleet, a ceremonial opening of the spring shrimp season and a Lowcountry tradition, takes place Sunday in Mount Pleasant. Decorated shrimp boats receive a blessing as they parade in Charleston Harbor offshore. Festivities feature a seafood festival, crafts and games.

The event takes place 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. at Alhambra Hall, 131 Middle St., in the Old Village. Parking and a free shuttle are available at Moultrie Plaza on Coleman Boulevard.

The spring shrimp season is expected to open in mid- to late May. S.C. Natural Resources Department biologists are monitoring the growth of the spring crop and expect to announce the date within 10 days. Oyster harvesting season closes May 15. Clam season closes May 31.