Whole Foods, Seattle Fish sourcing from Hawaii again

Last September, the Associated Press published an article that claimed labor abuses were occurring in Hawaii’s commercial fishing fleet. The article alleged that around 625 workers from Southeast Asia and Pacific Island nations – most undocumented – were not paid an adequate hourly age, were not allowed to leave their vessels and were forced to work against their will.

As a result of the article, several large seafood buyers, including Whole Foods and Seattle Fish Company, ceased purchasing Hawaiian seafood.

“We will suspend purchases of the small amount of long-line caught fish sourced from the Hawaiian seafood auction until we can ensure the working conditions on these boats align with our core values,” said Whole Foods in a prepared statement at the time.

Jim Cook, co-owner of Hawaii-based Pacific Ocean Producers and a member of the Hawaii Seafood Council, said in an interview with SeafoodSource he didn’t think the Associated Press article painted an accurate or complete picture of the state of the Hawaiian fleet, but that the changes that have resulted from the publication of the article have benefitted the seafood industry in Hawaii.

“The story is substantially different than what is implied in the AP article,” he said. “But the result – improved awareness and communication – has been a good thing.”

In the months that followed the AP story’s publication, the commercial fishing industry in Hawaii formed a task force to investigate the article’s claims. One of the first moves the task force made was to commission a survey of the foreign fishermen in the Hawaiian fleet. The study and resulting 65-page report, “Rapid Assessment of Foreign Crew on Hawaii Longline Vessels: Assessing Vulnerabilities of Foreign Crew to Forced Labor and Human Trafficking,” was conducted and written by social research scientist Amy Gough and published in early November 2016.

The report, which was obtained by SeafoodSource, was based off of interviews with 207 foreign fishermen onboard 105 of the 161 vessels in the Hawaiian longline fleet. It found that zero respondents reported fishing against their will or due to a threat of violence or other punishment. All were working under a signed contract, and none said they were employed as a means of repayment for loan or service, were unable to return to their country of origin if they desired, or were responsible for the cost of repatriation to their home countries upon completion of their contract.

“We think that the accusations [of labor abuse] are largely unfounded,” Cook said, citing the task force’s opinion of the situation after the issuance of the report.

However, the report’s conclusions did point out several vulnerabilities in the fleet’s business practices, including a lack of minimum industry standards for employing foreign crew, a lack of a code of conduct for vessel owners, the absence of oversight authorities and grievance mechanisms for foreign crew, and the lack of a verification scheme or compliance certificate for vessels operating in accordance with all established standards.

The report found average base pay for foreign crew between USD 350 and 900 (EUR 327 and 842) per trip (with the average trip lasting 20 days at sea, followed by five days at port), though many crewmembers were paid bonuses could raise their pay by an additional USD 100 (EUR 94), and in some cases, up to as much as USD 2,000 (EUR 1872) per trip.

Most significantly, the report exposed ties between foreign crew and manning (or job recruiting) agencies that create potential opportunities for the crewmembers to be exploited. Those include agencies that require upfront payments from recruits, ongoing payments during employment, withholding of documentation, lack of formal structures for remittance fees or processes, and poor documentation of both remittances and expenses.

“We saw the majority of problems were focused on the issue of these manning agencies and their contracts,” Cook said of the report’s findings. “We didn’t realize that there are other side agreements having to do with some crews making side payments…Some managing agencies have a bad habit of asking crewmembers for money that we have no control or knowledge over. So what [the task force] has been trying to do is get a program together where these manning agencies have to tell us are no other fees involved other than what we know of and that the crewmember is paying no other fees. Will it absolutely preclude abuse from happening? We’re not sure, but it’s an important step for us to take.”

The task force has also created a universal crew contract – and printed it in the diverse array of foreign languages spoken by the foreign crew in Hawaii – that has clarified and streamlined contract terms. It also introduced a code of conduct all Hawaiian vessels employing foreign crew, created by Katrina Nakamura, an expert in sustainability and labor fairness issues in seafood supply chains. The document is an eight-page foldout that is handed out to all crewmembers in the Hawaiian fleet.

The reception amongst major buyers to the changes implemented by the task force has been positive, as Whole Foods and Seattle Fish Co. have resumed purchasing Hawaiian seafood.

"Initially we suspended purchase until we had a clearer idea of what was happening," Seattle Fish Company Director of Purchasing Hamish Walker said. "We wanted to see that the Hawaiian industry was acknowledging the risk, taking it seriously, and had a clear plan of action. In subsequent communications with [Hawaii Seafood Council Program Manager] John Kaneko, we were pleased to see the documentation requirements from longline fishing vessels and the local involvement of a number of agencies. While the plan is progress, rather than complete, we have re-commenced our purchases from Hawaii and our pleased to support the industry there as it continues to develop best practices."

Even with the decisions by Whole Foods and Seattle Fish Company to recommit to Hawaiian seafood, Cook remains concerned that a stigma still clouds the state’s industry. He said he’s heard that the same AP reporters who wrote the original article are back in the state, continuing their investigation.

“They’re still around, asking questions, though they haven’t asked anything of us,” Cook said. “I suspect they’ll follow [their article] up. The line of questioning used when talked with some people has been, ‘So what have you done about it?’”

To “get out in front of the story,” the task force recently issued a press release, acknowledging that several investigations of forced labor on Hawaiian fishing vessels have taken place, including an inquiry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2013 and a separate, more recent investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. However, the release stated that the CBP inquiry was dismissed for lack of evidence and that a special agent for the Department of Homeland Security, Joanna Ip, told the Hawaii Seafood Council that none of the reported cases of unlawful working conditions have reached the threshold for prosecution.

“Although no credible evidence of forced labor or human trafficking have been uncovered, the Hawaii industry task force is continuing to work on this issue with outreach and education to the vessel owners, agents and crew to ensure clarity and understanding of the rights, protections and safety of the crew in the workplace,” the task force’s press release said.

Following the in-depth investigation of the status of its fleet’s crews, the release states unequivocally that “Hawaii-based foreign crew members are documented, legal, unconfined, and afforded basic protection in U.S. law. They possess legal standing on U.S. soil and have legal recourse. In recent interviews, crews indicated they work voluntarily and are paid in full as agreed.”

After hundreds of interviews with the crewmen at the center of the issue, Gough wrote in her report that “Foreign crew working in the Hawaii longline fleet report a number of trends that do not reflect forced labor or human trafficking.” Moreover, she wrote that foreign crewmen are themselves concerned about the negative perceptions currently shadowing the sector.

“[Foreign crew] are equally concerned with the negative attention received by the Hawaii longline industry,” Gough wrote in her report. “These individuals value their jobs and are concerned that they are at risk for losing this opportunity.”


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