Mon, Sep 26, 2016 - Page 8 News List

Exploited in paradise

Fishermen who fled slavery in San Francisco sue boat owner

By Martha Mendoza and Margie Mason  /  AP, SAN FRANCISCO

The Sea Queen II is docked at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco in November of last year. Abdul Fatah and Sorihin, Indonesian fishermen who escaped slavery aboard the Honolulu-based tuna and swordfish vessel when it docked at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, are suing its owner for tricking them into accepting dangerous jobs they say they weren’t allowed to leave.

Photo: AP

Two Indonesian fishermen who escaped slavery aboard a Honolulu-based tuna and swordfish vessel when it docked at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf are suing the boat’s owner for tricking them into accepting dangerous jobs they say they weren’t allowed to leave.

Attorneys for Abdul Fatah and Sorihin, who uses one name, say in a lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday that they were recruited in Indonesia seven years ago to work in Hawaii’s commercial fishing fleet without realizing they would never be allowed onshore. They have since been issued visas for victims of human trafficking and are living in the San Francisco area.

The lawsuit alleges that San Jose, California, resident Thoai Nguyen, owner and captain of the Sea Queen II, forced Sorihin and Fatah to work up to 20-hour shifts, denied them medical treatment and demanded thousands of dollars if they wanted to leave before their contracts expired. Nguyen did not return calls seeking comment.

The lawsuit seeks payment for debts the men incurred, fees they paid and compensation promised without specifying a dollar amount, and asks for unspecified damages for “mental anguish and pain.”

“I want to be compensated because of the suffering I felt on the boat and all the suffering I have endured after I got off the boat,” Sorihin said last week through a translator at his lawyer’s San Francisco office. “And I hope no one will suffer what I have suffered.”

COMMON PRACTICE

The lawsuit comes two weeks after an AP investigation found around 140 fishing boats based in Honolulu, including Sea Queen II, were crewed by hundreds of men from impoverished Southeast Asia and Pacific Island nations (“Foreign crews confined to boats catch Hawaiian seafood,” Sept. 12, page 7). The seafood is sold at markets and upscale restaurants across the US. A legal loophole allows them to work without visas as long as they don’t set foot on shore. The system is facilitated by the US Coast Guard, as well as Customs and Border Protection who require boat owners to hold workers’ passports.

AP found some men are paid as little as 70 cents an hour. Others had to use buckets instead of toilets, suffered running sores from bed bugs or sometimes lacked sufficient food.

In response, the Hawaii Longline Association representing fishing boat owners has created a universal crew contract that will be required on any boat wanting to sell fish in the state’s seafood auction starting Oct. 1. The group says it deplores human trafficking, and that the contract will protect workers.

The contracts let owners continue to set their own minimum salaries, allow workers to spend the entire year at sea (15 trips, 10 to 40 days each), and reiterate that they must remain on board with passports held by owners.

Cornell University law professor Stephen Yale-Loehr said the new contract “reinforces the current deplorable situation by emphasizing that the crew members have no real rights.”

“Congress should repeal the loophole that exempts US fishing captains from having to provide basic labor protections to their crew,” he said.

PRISON-LIKE CONDITIONS

Here’s what Sorihin and Fatah say happened to them.

They signed contracts promising US$350 a month plus bonuses. They borrowed about US$300 to pay an agent in Jakarta. They flew from Jakarta to Singapore, then Sydney, on to Fiji and Pago Pago, American Samoa, an exhausting, 12,500-mile trip.

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