In Government Affairs, Slavery, US Congress

By Sophie Cocke; Honolulu Advertiser; September 20, 2016

The Honolulu Fish Auction will ban any longline vessel from selling catch at its Pier 38 location beginning Oct. 1 if the boat owner or captain doesn’t use a new universal crew contract designed by the local fishing industry that’s supposed to protect against illegal working conditions.

The basic, two-page contract is designed around United Nations standards to demonstrate that neither slavery nor human trafficking is taking place on a vessel, said Jim Cook, a member of and advocate for the Hawaii fishing industry. The document doesn’t address general working conditions or levels of pay.

The contract, released Monday, was criticized by Kathryn Xian, executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, who said it wouldn’t help solve the labor problems on Hawaii’s longline fishing boats.

“The system is a problem, not a faulty contract,” said Xian. “The contract is basically an unenforceable measure that pays a lot of lip service to progress, but probably will not end up ending any instance of human trafficking or labor exploitation.”

The contract was developed by the local longline fishing industry in response to an investigation by the Associated Press published earlier this month that found instances of human trafficking and grueling conditions on board Hawaii vessels that employ a largely foreign crew of about 700 fishermen.

The AP story also found that some fishermen were earning as little as 70 cents per hour, confined to boats for years and lacking essentials such as toilets and suffering from bed bug sores.

The universal crew contract stipulates that any worker recruitment fees be paid by the vessel owner, not the worker. Crew passports are to be held by the owner of the vessels, but copies of the passports must be provided to the fishermen, and crew members may access their passports at any time.

The contract also specifies that fishermen must be paid in United States dollars and paid within four days of landing. The second page of the contract contains a record of payment, where fishermen are to sign each time they get paid.

In addition, the contract spells out that fishermen will be aboard longline vessels making up to 15 trips per year that can last between 10 and 40 days.

The contract will be translated into the first languages of fishermen, according to the industry.

Federal officials couldn’t be reached late Monday to comment on legal issues surrounding the contract.

The contract comes after Whole Foods Market announced that it was suspending buying fish at the Honolulu Fish Auction, and the fishing industry worried that other buyers would follow suit.

Hawaii’s congressional delegation also issued strongly worded statements last week calling the situation disturbing and saying that it is working with various federal agencies to address the labor conditions.

Federal law requires that U.S. citizens make up 75 percent of the crew on commercial fishing vessels. However, a legal loophole has allowed Hawaii’s longline commercial fishing industry to circumvent this requirement and hire largely foreign crews. Vessels fishing for highly migratory species, which includes Hawaii’s longliners, are excluded from the 75 percent requirement.

The foreign fishermen who dock at Honolulu’s piers with Hawaii’s prized ahi are left in a bizarre legal purgatory in which they have no legal standing in the U.S., are exempt from national labor protections and can’t set foot on shore.

On the day the AP report was published, fishing industry officials say, they formed a task force composed of vessel owners, suppliers, the Honolulu Fish Auction and the Hawaii Seafood Council. In addition to the universal crew contract, the task force says it is working on a vessel inspection checklist to assess working conditions, as well as a checklist for interviewing crewmen.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection also held two meetings at Pier 17 and Pier 38 for foreign crewmen that excluded owners and captains, according to information from the task force.

“The fishery has proven itself over the years to be responsive and an industry leader in meeting the challenges arising from new information about fishery impacts on fish populations and protected species,” John Kaneko, a task force member and program director for the Hawaii Seafood Council, said in a statement. “The allegations of labor abuses present a serious and new challenge, and the industry is rallying to respond quickly. 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.”

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