The Associated Press released a report on Thursday, 8 September detailing alleged labor abuses onboard Hawaii’s commercial fishing vessels.
Due to a loophole in United States laws, around 700 undocumented workers, mostly from Southeast Asia and Pacific island nations, are allowed to work in Hawaii’s 140-vessel-strong fishing fleet, catching tuna, mahi, swordfish and other seafood sold in Hawaii and throughout the United States. According to the AP report, they are paid as little as USD 0.70 (EUR 0.62) per hour, work shifts as long as 22 hours nonstop and are frequently confined to their ships for years at a time, since they do not have U.S. visas. Many are victims of human trafficking.
While 80 percent of the seafood caught by the Hawaiian fleet remains in Hawaii, about 20 percent is export to the mainland United States, with the AP reporting that buyers include Costco, Whole Foods in Los Angeles, Stavis Seafood and John Nagle seafood in Boston, LaRocca Seafood in San Francisco and Roy’s restaurants, owned by famed chef Roy Yamaguchi. Many of these companies, when contacted for comment by the AP, said they would investigate their supply chains and review their decision to purchase Hawaiian seafood potentially tainted by labor abuses.
Kathryn Xian, director of the nonprofit group Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, criticized the loophole in U.S. regulations that allows exploitation of migrant workers.
"Most of the fish caught and sold in Hawaii is done by the use of exploiting migrant workers in what looks to be a human trafficking scheme legitimized by our own laws," Xian said to the AP.
Hawaii is the country’s fifth-largest fishery, annually catching around USD 110 million (EUR 97.3 million) worth of seafood. However, following a labor shortage in the commercial fleet on the islands in the 1990s, a loophole in federal regulations was created to exempt Hawaii’s fishery from the U.S. law requiring the crews of domestic commercial fishing vessels be composed of 75 percent U.S. citiziens. According to the AP, one of the leading advocates for the exemption was the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who pushed for the loophole as a means to support one of the state's biggest industries.
Today, these foreign workers in Hawaii’s fishing fleet are paid as little as USD 350 (EUR 310) per month, with some receiving bonuses that increase their monthly pay up to USD 600 (EUR 531). Many are “willing to give up their freedom of movement for these jobs because of the salary,” which is still more than they would earn at home in countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Kiribati, the AP reported.
The U.S. government defines forced labor and debt bondage, often involving migrant workers, as modern-day slavery and annually blacklists countries that have the worst human trafficking records, the AP reported.
Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for the U.S. seafood trade association the National Fisheries Institute, said in a statement that “NFI members have zero tolerance for human trafficking or labor violations.”
“Some workplace exemptions have historically allowed certain sectors to fill jobs that would not otherwise have been maintained by domestic workers,” he said in an emailed statement. “These exemptions can be mutually beneficial but these exemptions should not include laborers from basic workplace protections. U.S. law enforcement has a responsibility to act to protect individuals whose rights might be violated and who might be placed in harm’s way by illegal actions.
Gibbons said the 700 workers in the Hawaiian fleet potentially subjected to labor rights violations are a small percentage of the 744,850 workers employed in the U.S. fishing industry.
“For the vast majority of those jobs, labor abuses are not being alleged,” he said.
Regarding the migrant workers in Hawaii, Gibbons said, “We encourage law enforcement to act quickly and forcefully to address accusations of trafficking and human rights abuses.”