Hawaii congressional delegation seeks to improve conditions for foreign workers in the state commercial fishing fleet

Members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation have filed bills that would extend visas to foreign fishermen working on fishing boats in the state.

The moves come more than a year after the Associated Press first reported allegations of labor abuses on commercial vessels. Reporters found about 700 undocumented workers, mainly from Southeast Asia and Pacific island countries, who work for less than USD 1.00 (EUR 0.86) an hour. The AP’s reports indicated those individuals also have been subjected to working long hours and living in squalor. 

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) filed S.B. 2071, named the “Sustainable Fishing Workforce Protection Act,” filed the bill last week. In addition to giving visas to the workers, the Democratic senator’s bill also would detail what federal agencies have authority over the health and safety issues concerning Hawaii’s commercial fishing fleet. 

The bill, co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), would mandate commercial fishing businesses to adhere to a set of responsibilities in their treatment of foreign workers. Companies would be required to keep signed copies of those agreements, and workers could seek relief through the courts or an arbitrator if the terms were violated.

“This bill provides necessary protections for foreign fishermen and ensures the continued viability of Hawaii’s longline fishing fleet, which is important to our culture,” Hirono said.

Hawaii U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa filed a companion bill in the House, also last Thursday. The Democratic congresswoman’s bill is sponsored by the state’s other Democratic congresswoman, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. 

“I am optimistic this legislative framework will allow Congress to better define the employer-employee relationship between boat owners and foreign fisherman such that each side understands their rights and obligations,” Hanabusa said.

Earlier this year, Hawaii’s state legislature failed to pass two bills that would have increased scrutiny over the commercial fishing industry. One of the state bills called for workers to apply for their fishing license in person. Supporters clam the legislation would have given fishermen an opportunity to report human trafficking or labor abuses to state officials. 

However, that and a bill that called for the state to retain employment contracts died after industry leaders said the legislation could shut down commercial fishing in the state. 


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