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Hawaii lawmakers promise reform for confined fishermen

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Fishermen stand on a boat at Pier 38 on Wednesday. State and federal lawmakers promised to improve conditions for hundreds of foreign workers confined to boats in Hawaii’s commercial fishing fleet for years without basic labor protections.

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Fishermen stand on a boat at Pier 38 on Wednesday. State and federal lawmakers promised to improve conditions for hundreds of foreign workers confined to boats in Hawaii’s commercial fishing fleet for years without basic labor protections.

State and federal lawmakers are promising to improve conditions for hundreds of foreign fishermen working in Hawaii’s commercial fleet, and at least one company has already stopped buying fish from the boats following an Associated Press investigation that found the men have been confined to vessels for years without basic labor protections.

Whole Foods has halted buying seafood caught by foreign crew until it’s clear the men are treated fairly. Today, the Hawaii Seafood Council said that starting Oct. 1, the Honolulu Fish Auction will sell fish only from boats that have adopted a new, standardized contract aimed at assuring no forced labor exists on board.

The AP report found commercial fishing boats in Honolulu were crewed by men from impoverished Southeast Asia and Pacific Island nations who catch prized swordfish, ahi tuna and other seafood sold at markets and upscale restaurants across the country. A legal loophole allows them to work on the American-owned, American-flagged boats without visas as long as they don’t set foot on shore. The system is facilitated by the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection.

While many men appreciate the jobs, which pay better than they could get back home, the report revealed instances of human trafficking, tuberculosis and food shortages. It also found some fishermen being forced to defecate in buckets, suffering running sores from bed bugs and being paid as little as 70 cents an hour.

On Capitol Hill, Hawaii’s congressional delegation — U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz along with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, all Democrats — said they were exploring legislative solutions after being startled by the findings about the state’s $110 million industry, which ranks fifth among the country’s highest-grossing fisheries.

“It is completely unacceptable that the inhumane treatment of any workers, foreign or not, is legal under U.S. federal law,” Hirono said in a statement.

In Honolulu, state Rep. Kaniela Ing, chair of the Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs committee, asked state Attorney General Doug Chin to weigh in on whether boat owners should be regulated under Hawaii rules. If so, Ing said there would likely be an injunction ordered to halt labor or business violations. If not, he said he would introduce legislation to protect the workers, who labor up to 22 hours a day.

“That loophole doesn’t mean it’s OK to treat them like slaves,” Ing said.

Chin said he was reviewing the request.

The Hawaii report is part of the AP’s ongoing investigation into human trafficking and labor abuse in the global seafood industry. Last year, reporters found some fishermen locked in a cage on the remote Indonesian island of Benjina . Others were buried under fake names. Their catch was traced to the United States, and the reporting led to more than 2,000 slaves being freed.

Federal law requires that U.S. citizens make up 75 percent of the crew on most commercial fishing vessels in America; the Hawaiian fleet has an exemption carved out years ago, largely by lawmakers no longer in office.

“We always would want workers to have decent working conditions,” said Gov. David Ige. He added that the AP report “highlighted how sometimes people fall in a loophole and they don’t get the full protections of labor laws that most of us enjoy.”

After the story was published, Hawaiian boat owners and seafood sellers quickly formed a task force which they said was creating a universal contract. They said they are working with buyers and government officials.

“I am confident that through this process we will ferret out any vessel from the fleet that is involved in forced labor, labor abuse or substandard working conditions and treatment of the crew,” said John Kaneko of the Hawaii Seafood Council.

The investigation found the fishermen are paid as little as $350 a month, but many also get small bonuses, lifting their monthly pay to $500 or $600. A lucky few earn a percentage of the catch, making it possible to triple their wages.

Most of the approximately 700 crewmembers in the Hawaii fleet are from the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati. Because they have no visas, they aren’t allowed to fly into the country, and are instead picked up at foreign ports and brought to Honolulu by boat.

Some crewmembers are from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands and carry green cards because of a special relationship with the U.S. A few are locals from Hawaii as well. They are allowed to leave the docks when they come in after their three-week fishing trips, but the rest are detained on board by captains who are legally required to keep their passports. Neither U.S. Customs nor the boat association could provide a detailed breakdown of crew nationalities.

The boats dock occasionally at ports along the West Coast, including San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, but mainly at Piers 17 and 38 in Honolulu. Their catch ends up at eateries and seafood counters across the country, from Roy’s restaurants to markets like Whole Foods and Costco. Companies that responded condemned labor abuse and said they would investigate.

Whole Foods is suspending sales from boats with foreign crew, but will continue to buy seafood from “local, day-boat fishermen with proven fair labor practices,” such as vessels with just one or two workers, often friends or relatives, said spokeswoman McKinzey Crossland.

Environmental, labor and anti-trafficking advocates called for reform.

Kris Coffield, executive director of the Honolulu-based anti-trafficking group IMUAlliance, said he’s been receiving complaints from foreign fishermen for the past three or four years.

“Among the fishermen we’ve worked with, there are questions about whether there’s debt bondage going on,” he said. To get their jobs, some workers have to pay exorbitant fees to agencies that they will never be able to pay back, Coffield said.

Debt bondage is a form of modern-day slavery by the State Department’s definition.

In a statement, the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking called for the gaps in law and policy to be closed.

“Until the United States puts its own house in order,” it said, “it will be difficult to convince other governments to seriously combat modern slavery in their own countries.”

13 responses to “Hawaii lawmakers promise reform for confined fishermen”

  1. st1d says:

    it’s time to check every commercial fishing boat docked in hawaii and recover every foreign fisherman kept aboard under subhuman conditions.

  2. sailfish1 says:

    “Kris Coffield, executive director of the Honolulu-based anti-trafficking group IMUAlliance, said he’s been receiving complaints from foreign fishermen for the past three or four years.” – He and his organization are part of the problem. After 3-4 years of complaints. he evidently did nothing.

  3. st1d says:

    what eles are these slavers trafficking? drugs, women, weapons?

  4. reamesr1 says:

    Hawaii lawmakers promise reform for confined fishermen. Really!!!! These boat owners take advantage of the law, reap in HUGE profits and own several boats. And the public TAX PAYER gets stiffed why because of the loop holes they bring in cheap labor in squalor living conditions. CLOSE THE LOOP HOLES ! If LOCAL FISHERMAN were used the economy for some families could improve. The Legislature should Stop this abuse by stopping these boat owners. They do very little to support the LOCAL ECONOMY. Sure the fish are sold at the auction house but the money goes to the auction house and the boat owners. Very little goes into the local economy and the workers pay no income tax. Buying Local means locally caught buy local fishermen. Who knows you might keep a few families employed and NOT HOMELESS or DESTITUTE.

    • littleyoboboy says:

      Can’t agree with you more. Get rid of the aliens, and run a legitimate business. And don’t even start the excuse of prices rising because of it. Used to sell my fish at the auction, so I’ve seen what kind of prices us local fisherman get for our fish. But the prices at the stores are marked up ridiculously. We are in competition with these illegal commercial operations. More local fisherman would be able to make a living if things were changed. The real local fisherman bust their butts trying to make a living. It’s time for them to start reaping some reward. And none of them live a lavish life. Just your average next door neighbor busting his arse.

  5. opihi123 says:

    End this program, send the workers home, Let the prices of fish go to where they really should be. We have had artificially low prices for years.

  6. justmyview371 says:

    Isn’t this a Federal issue, not State or City.

    • Ronin006 says:

      It is a Federal issue. Hawaii politicians need to tread lightly or they may undo what Senator Inouye did, which might be considered heresy and result in political suicide.

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