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Hawaii lawmakers promise reform for confined fishermen

Posted 5:01 a.m. Monday
Updated 5:03 a.m. Monday

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.

Whole Foods halted buying seafood caught by foreign crew until it's clear the men are treated fairly. On Sunday, the Hawaii Seafood Council said that starting 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 country. A legal loophole allows them to work on the American-owned, American-flagged boats without visas as long as they don't set foot on shore. The system is facilitated by the U.S. 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 70 cents an hour.

On Capitol Hill, Hawaii's congressional delegation — U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz along with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, all Democrats — said they were exploring legislative solutions after being startled by the findings about the state's $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 U.S. federal law," Hirono said in a statement.

In Honolulu, state Rep. Kaniela Ing, chair of the Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs committee, asked state 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 United States, and the reporting led to more than 2,000 slaves being freed.

Federal law requires that U.S. citizens make up 75 percent of the crew on most commercial fishing vessels in America; the fleet in Hawaii has an exemption carved out years ago, largely by lawmakers no longer in office.

"We always would want workers to have decent working conditions," said Hawaii Gov. David Ige. 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."

After the story was published, boat owners in Hawaii and seafood sellers quickly formed a task force which they said was creating a universal contract. They said they are working with buyers and government officials.

"I am confident that through this process we will ferret out any vessel from the fleet that is involved in forced labor, labor abuse or substandard working conditions and treatment of the crew," said John Kaneko of the Hawaii Seafood Council.

The investigation found the fishermen are paid as little as $350 a month, but many also get small bonuses, lifting their monthly pay to $500 or $600. A lucky few earn a percentage of the catch, making it possible to triple their wages.

Most of the approximately 700 crewmembers in the Hawaii fleet are from the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati. Because they have no visas, they aren't allowed to fly into the country, and are instead picked up at foreign ports and brought to Honolulu by boat.

Some crewmembers are from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands and carry green cards because of a special relationship with the U.S. A few are locals from Hawaii as well. They are allowed to leave the docks when they come in after their three-week fishing trips, but the rest are detained on board by captains who are legally required to keep their passports. Neither U.S. Customs nor the boat association could provide a detailed breakdown of crew nationalities.

John Myking owns two boats and has been fishing for more than 30 years. He crews his vessels mostly with men from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, but also sometimes hires workers born and raised in the state. He said their pay can range anywhere from $800 to $2,000 a month when the fish are biting, to sometimes much less depending on the catch. He is considering adding Indonesian crew to one of his boats because he says it's hard to find local fishermen, but added he believes the men should be allowed to fly into Hawaii and be given visas to leave their ships. He condemned labor abuses.

"If there is a problem with guys being abused, I definitely agree it should be straightened out," he said, adding that many foreign fishermen return to Hawaii repeatedly over many years to work on the fleet. "I guess there are a few bad apples here and there."

The boats dock occasionally at ports along the West Coast, including San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, but mainly at Piers 17 and 38 in Honolulu. Their catch ends up at eateries and seafood counters across the country, from Roy's restaurants to markets like Whole Foods and Costco. Companies that responded condemned labor abuse and said they would investigate.

Whole Foods is suspending sales from boats with foreign crew, but will continue to buy seafood from "local, day-boat fishermen with proven fair labor practices," such as vessels with just one or two workers, often friends or relatives, said spokeswoman McKinzey Crossland.

Environmental, labor and anti-trafficking advocates called for reform.

Kris Coffield, executive director of the Honolulu-based anti-trafficking group IMUAlliance, said he's been receiving complaints from foreign fishermen for the past three or four years.

"Among the fishermen we've worked with, there are questions about whether there's debt bondage going on," he said. To get their jobs, some workers have to pay exorbitant fees to agencies that they will never be able to pay back, Coffield said.

Debt bondage is a form of modern-day slavery by the State Department's definition.

In a statement, the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking called for the gaps in law and policy to be closed.

"Until the United States puts its own house in order," it said, "it will be difficult to convince other governments to seriously combat modern slavery in their own countries."

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AP reporters Cathy Bussewitz, Caleb Jones and Jennifer Sinco Kelleher in Honolulu contributed to this report.

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Follow Martha Mendoza and Margie Mason on Twitter at: @mendozamartha and @MargieMasonAP

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Read the entire Seafood From Slaves series: http://www.ap.org/explore/seafood-from-slaves/

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