Tue, Sep 20, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Hawaiian lawmakers vow reforms for foreign fishermen

CONFINED, EXPLOITED:The state’s congressional delegation said it is exploring legislative solutions after learning of the inhumane treatment in the fishery industry


Fishermen on Wednesday stand on a commerical fishing boat tied up to a dock at Pier 38 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Photo: AP

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 (“Foreign crews confined to boats catch Hawaiian seafood,” Sept. 12, page 7).

The Whole Foods supermarket chain has halted buying seafood caught by foreign crew until it is clear the men are treated fairly.

On Sunday, the Hawaii Seafood Council said that starting on 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 US.

A legal loophole allows them to work on the US-owned, US-flagged boats without visas as long as they do not set foot on shore. The system is facilitated by the US 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 US$0.70 an hour.

On Capitol Hill, Hawaii’s congressional delegation — US senators Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz along with Representative Tulsi Gabbard, all Democrats — said they were exploring legislative solutions after being startled by the findings about the state’s US$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 US federal law,” Hirono said in a statement.

In Honolulu, state Representative Kaniela Ing, chair of the Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, asked Hawaii 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 US, and the reporting led to more than 2,000 slaves being freed.

Federal law requires that US citizens make up 75 percent of the crew on most commercial fishing vessels in the US; 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,” Hawaii Governor David Ige said.

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.”

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