Stung by lingering allegations of human trafficking and forced labor, the Hawaii fishing industry has developed a formal code of conduct, crew handbook and model employee contract aimed at protecting the workers aboard its fleet of more than 140 vessels.
“It makes the most amount of sense that we give the public a certain degree of confidence that none of this is happening in our industry,” said Khang Dang, owner of 22 fishing boats and a member of the Hawaii Longline Association board of directors.
The documents — available in five languages and distributed to fishermen in the harbor last week — are designed to let the largely foreign ranks of contract fishing crew members clearly understand their rights, benefits and grievance procedures while they are working in Hawaii.
The Hawaii Longline Association initiated the effort following a September 2016 Associated Press investigation that brought national attention to allegations of forced labor, human trafficking, mistreatment and unsafe conditions.
The owners of the boats that make up the Pacific fishing fleet based in Honolulu were portrayed as taking advantage of a loophole in federal law to abuse foreign workers via inhumane working conditions, broken contracts and lousy pay.
The report prompted wholesale buyers and retailers to question whether the fish being sold was ethically sourced and led to an effort by state lawmakers to propose leveraging state fishing licenses to improve conditions in the industry.
More recently, a lawsuit alleging that two Indonesian fishermen were enslaved on a Pacific fishing boat in 2009 was settled in January.
Industry representatives last week sat down with a reporter to talk about the allegations and to unveil the documents they said are designed to codify the practices already being followed within the fleet. They said they were astonished by the accusations that brought them widespread notoriety in 2016.
“What was shocking to us is we know how we treat our crew members. We know how our operations work. So when the allegations came to light, I took a great amount of exception to it. These were outlandish allegations,” Dang said.
Hawaii-based fishing vessels are strictly regulated and have a long history of affording protections to foreign crew members, the industry officials said.
No local, state or federal agency, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Coast Guard, FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which regulate the workers and boat owners, has confirmed a case of forced labor or human trafficking of foreign crewmen aboard a Hawaii-based fishing vessel, they said.
Federal law allows the fishing industry here to recruit foreign workers and pay them less than American workers. The exemption allows the industry to find employees for a tough and sometimes dangerous job not many Americans want.
While it helps with the bottom line, the boat owners said they are responsible for providing medical care, food and other expenses for the terms of the contract.
“I’m heavily invested in the foreign crew before they even get here,” said Sean Martin, co-owner of POP Marine and five commercial fishing boats.
After the allegations of mistreatment were aired, the Hawaii Longline Association decided to take a deeper look at the industry to find out whether they were justified.
“We wanted to get our arms around the entire fishery and establish a basic set of standards all the boats fish under here,” Martin said.
The association hired a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sociologist and researcher to assess the condition and state of the crews, and to help formulate the code of conduct.
Now a private contractor in Florida, Amy Gough studied the demographics of the Hawaii longline crew for NOAA in the early 2000s and published a study in 2006. She said she heard few problems among the fisherman under contract from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Kiribati.
Gough, in Hawaii last week to distribute and explain the code of conduct to fisherman, said she conducted rapid assessments of crews in late 2016, examining living conditions and looking for any instances of forced labor and human trafficking.
Gough said she talked to crews on 75 percent of the fishery’s boats, sampling all ethnicities. All of the men she surveyed said they were satisfied with their living conditions and that they were free to go home at any time.
“There were zero issues and lots of retention. They like this job,” she said.
“The first time around the demographic was little different,” she added. “Pay has gone up a little. But the situation is the same. The guys were satisfied. They were happy.”
Gough said the foreign fisherman prefer working in the Hawaii commercial fishing fleet more than elsewhere in the Pacific.
Workers prefer Hawaii
Pastor Jerry Saludez of Waipio Community Baptist Church runs a seafarers’ ministry. In its third year, the ministry involving 10 churches has “adopted” 65 boats with more than 300 fishermen.
“We are like their hanai family,” he said.
Saludez said he rarely hears complaints about working conditions. “They are happy,” he said.
The ministry holds a dinner fellowship and clinic at the docks Tuesdays and Fridays that are streamed on Facebook Live so the crews’ families can watch. Saludez often brings vegetables, clothes, toiletries and a portable basketball hoop.
Saludez said the fishermen he talks to prefer Hawaii over other fisheries in the Pacific. While the Hawaii fishing boats go out to sea three weeks at a time, most foreign-flagged vessel don’t see land from six months to two years.
“It’s a difficult job with long hours. But compared to what they have in the Philippines, this is four times better, five times better,” Saludez said.
They were not complaining at Pier 38 on Wednesday.
Romulo Barte, 60, a crewman aboard the St. Peter, said he has worked in Hawaii for 14 years, earning enough money to build a house and buy 12 acres of land in the Philippines and put both of his sons through college.
Fellow crewman Roderick Perocho, 32, said he worked construction in the Philippines before joining the Hawaii fishing fleet nine years ago. He said he can’t earn enough in his native Philippines to support his family.
Perocho said he owns a small store and farm in Bacolod City and has acquired a small assortment of fishing boats on Siquijor Island, where he was born and grew up.
“I’m very happy. That’s why I stay longer on the boat,” he said.
Aboard the Kimmy 1, Dadan Sopyan, 42, of Indonesia, said he’s worked in Hawaii for 12 years. While he’s heard of subpar treatment on others boats, he said he’s always been treated well. “I’m happy,” he said.
Code explains contract
All foreign crewmen aboard Hawaii-based vessels are required to be documented and have passports.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection requires that foreign crewmen be “detained onboard,” but they are also allowed to hang out in the immediate port area. Workers also can be escorted to medical facilities or consulate services as needed.
The boat owners said all crewmen are allowed to terminate their work contracts at any time between fishing trips. Workers who complete their contracts are provided with return travel, paid for by the vessel owner. Workers who choose not to complete their contracts are responsible for return travel costs.
Industry officials said that without the labor loophole that allows for the hiring of foreign crews, there would be negative impacts on Hawaii’s fleet and consumers.
“Without the exception, people would be eating more fish caught by fishermen who are not monitored or have the proper oversight,” said John Kaneko, program manager with the Hawaii Seafood Council. “I would say illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing goes hand in hand for opportunities for labor abuse.”
Michael Goto, auction manager with the United Fishing Agency, which operates a wholesale seafood auction at Pier 38, said he’s satisfied with the industry’s ethics, especially after being apart of the Hawaii Longline Fishing Association task force that examined practices and came up with a code of conduct.
“We took a stance to never sell fish that isn’t following the protocol,” Goto said.
The voluntary employer code includes “dos and don’ts” of recruitment, payment, passport/ID access, onboard health and safety, freedom of movement in the workplace, repatriation and grievance mechanisms. It specifies minimum terms to protect workers from the recruitment process to repatriation at the end of completed contracts.
The code is tied directly to the model crew contract for use by vessel owners and crewmen, and a crew handbook that explains workplace operations, contract details and grievance mechanisms. The contracts and handbooks are written in English and have been translated for workers from Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Kiribati.