Lawmakers, officials from the fishing industry, advocacy groups and state officials convened at the Hawaii state Capitol on Wednesday for more than three hours to come up with solutions to address allegations of poor working conditions aboard Hawaii longline fishing vessels.
Absent were any of the approximately 700 fishermen who crew the fleet of about 140 boats and who were the subject of the hearing. While the workers dock at Honolulu piers, where they deliver prized ahi and swordfish, the foreign workers aren’t allowed to set foot on U.S. soil., underscoring the difficulty of addressing alleged labor abuses.
The briefing was prompted by a six-month investigation by the Associated Press, published last month, that found instances of human trafficking and poor living conditions aboard some of the vessels. The investigation found that some men were forced to use buckets instead of toilets, suffered from bedbug sores and lacked sufficient food.
The informational briefing revealed little consensus on how significant the labor allegations are, and there appears to be little agreement on the best path forward to increase oversight of working conditions.
Before the legislative briefing, which was hosted by Rep. Kaniela Ing, chairman of the House Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs, advocacy groups gathered in the atrium of the Capitol in support of the fishermen.
“We have a moral obligation to ensure that we set up a system that deters this kind of exploitation,” Marti Townsend, executive director of the Hawaii Sierra Club, told reporters. “We don’t want exploitation of our natural resources, and we don’t want exploitation of our workers.”
About a dozen people showed up at the rally, holding signs that read “No Human Trafficking” and “Fair Labor for All.”
“For us and for the public, I think people are asking, ‘Is this issue, is this industry, too complex and too lucrative to change?’” said Khara Jabola-Carolus, chapter coordinator for AF3IRM Hawaii, a feminist organization that fights oppression. “And our answer to that is no.”
Last year, longliners landed 34 million
pounds of fish valued at
$94.2 million, according to Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Inside the legislative briefing, passions were more subdued as lawmakers listened to a parade of testimony from officials from the Hawaii Longline Association, Hawaii Seafood Council,
Honolulu Fish Auction, and Pacific Gateway Center, and from two ministers who have been working with the foreign fishermen.
While the AP report was careful to point out that not all of the fishing boats had harsh conditions and that some crew members said they enjoyed the work, the fishing industry has been on the defensive even as it works to address the labor allegations.
John Kaneko, program manager for the Hawaii Seafood Council, a local nonprofit, pointed out that there are fishermen who continue to renew two- to three-year contracts, a sharp contrast to what would be expected under slave-like conditions.
“Well, that kind of sounds like a domestic-violence batterer argument, right? She keeps coming back,” responded Ing.
KANEKO disagreed. “Once you went home, why would you come back?”
While the fishing industry has hired a consultant to interview the crew, Ashley Watts, who worked as an observer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, spoke perhaps the most authoritatively about the conditions on the vessels. She would accompany the fishermen on their approximately three-week trips out at sea.
“A worst-case scenario boat would be you have no AC, you have bedbugs, you have roaches everywhere, you have no toilet, you have a … shower that only has cold water and it is outside with no enclosed space,” she told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser after the briefing.
She said some vessels had few cooking utensils and limited fruits and vegetables. But she also pointed out that for the crew, a lot depends on the American captain.
“We have some observers who will go on a boat that is really nasty and they are used to that and they have the greatest trip because the captain treats the crew well and the crew is happy and they have all their needs met and the boat could be disgusting,” she said. “And then you could have an observer go on a very clean vessel with a very demanding, domineering captain and have the worst trip.”
Despite the three hours of testimony, there was little pointed discussion about specific remedies to help protect the foreign workers. Ing said that he was particularly focused on trying to get the crew contracts, so at least state officials are aware of what the fishermen are promised.
“My focus has been on how do we bring that contract to light,” he said after the hearing. He said one possibility would be to make it part of the state’s licensing process for commercial fishing licenses, or it could be required as part of a universal crew contract recently developed by the fishing industry to try to prevent human trafficking.
Bruce Anderson, administrator of the state DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources, pointed out other avenues, though these would likely need to be addressed at the federal level.
One proposal is closing the federal loophole that has allowed Hawaii’s longline fishing industry an exemption from federal law that requires that 75 percent of a vessel’s crew be made up of U.S. citizens. He also suggested giving fishermen a temporary work visa — they currently have none.
“That ensures that they have health insurance, that ensures that they are given a reasonable place to live and it doesn’t require that they be paid a minimum wage — they can still negotiate,” he said. “But at least those basic conditions are met with the temporary work visa.”