Hirono drafts bill to aid crews confined to boats
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono plans to introduce legislation in January that will give foreign fishermen who work aboard Hawaii-based longline fishing vessels greater labor protections, including visas that will allow them to legally work in the country.
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U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono plans to introduce legislation after the new Congress is seated in January that will give foreign fishermen who work aboard Hawaii-based longline fishing vessels greater labor protections, including visas that will allow them to legally work in the country.
The Hawaii longline fleet of about 140 vessels employs about 700 workers who bring in prized tuna and swordfish to Honolulu’s piers. The crews comprise mainly foreign workers from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Kiribati and Vietnam who largely lack U.S. labor protections, giving rise to concerns about potential human trafficking and labor abuses.
The industry has been under intense scrutiny since the Associated Press published a story in September that described grueling conditions aboard some of the boats, including long work hours and fishermen earning as little as 70 cents per hour. Some of the boats lacked essentials such as toilets and were infested with bedbugs.
The fishermen, who dock about every three weeks to bring in their catch, aren’t supposed to leave their vessels. They don’t have visas and aren’t allowed to step foot on U.S. soil, though U.S. Customs and Border Protection allows crew members to enter a small area off one of the piers that has restroom facilities.
As a result, the foreign fishermen can remain largely confined to the U.S. flagged vessels for years, unable to even cross the street to go to a grocery store.
Hirono’s bill would give the fishermen temporary work visas designed to afford the workers wage protections, safe working conditions and contract enforcement provisions, similar to those afforded other foreign workers with comparable visas.
The visas would allow the fishermen to leave their vessels when docked in Honolulu, as well as travel in and out of Honolulu Airport. Currently, the workers aren’t permitted to fly into the country in order to board the American boats. Instead, captains pick up the workers at foreign locations, such as Samoa.
The legislation is aimed at protecting the fishermen while also preserving the longline industry. Hirono has also been working with federal agencies to come up with nonlegislative fixes to the fishermen’s plight.
“I am committed to protecting foreign fishermen from exploitation and preserving Hawaii’s longline fishing industry,” Hirono said in a statement Saturday. “I am reviewing relevant laws and regulations and working with federal agencies, stakeholders and other knowledgeable sources to develop legislation that will accomplish these goals.”
Hawaii’s longline industry has largely operated with foreign workers since the 1990s after being exempted from a federal law that requires 75 percent of crews aboard American fishing vessels to be U.S. citizens or legal residents. Representatives of the longline industry have said they are unable to attract American workers to crew the boats.
That exemption, as well as other peculiarities in federal laws and regulations that pertain to the industry, have left the foreign fishermen in a sort of legal purgatory.
While they are legally employed by U.S. vessels, it’s not clear what legal protections they may be afforded under U.S. law. Officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have said in recent weeks that they lack the authority to enforce provisions of the worker contracts and other labor protections, though they do investigate allegations of human trafficking.
Hirono’s bill is expected to keep in place the longliners’ exemption from hiring mainly domestic crew, while also clarifying federal agencies’ areas of jurisdiction.
An earlier version of this story noted that Hirono will introduce her bill in January. The bill will be introduced sometime after the new Congress is seated in January.