Today the Associated Press dropped a bombshell of a report on Hawaii’s fishing industry: much of the fish we eat in Hawaii is caught by foreign crews working under deplorable conditions that pretty much match the definition of indentured servitude. Here’s an excerpt of the AP’s findings:
Hundreds of undocumented men are employed in this unique U.S. fishing fleet, due to a federal loophole that allows them to work but exempts them from most basic labor protections. Many come from impoverished Southeast Asian and Pacific nations to take the dangerous jobs, which can pay as little as 70 cents an hour.
With no legal standing on U.S. soil, the men are at the mercy of their American captains on American-flagged, American-owned vessels, catching prized swordfish and ahi tuna. Since they don’t have visas, they are not allowed to set foot on shore. The entire system, which contradicts other state and federal laws, operates with the blessing of high-ranking U.S. lawmakers and officials, an Associated Press investigation found.
Angry yet? Well, how about reading this assessment of Hawaii’s fishing industry from one activist quoted in the story:
“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,” said Kathryn Xian, who runs the nonprofit Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery.
Of Hawaii’s three elected federal officials, only Senator Mazie Hirono is mentioned in the story (though she’s not quoted directly):
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, acknowledges the fishermen’s liberties are limited and has unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that would allow them to fly into the country. It’s a move that would fix a widely accepted paradox. Currently, even though the men never legally enter the United States, the government provides a transit visa that lets them exit through Honolulu’s airport.
The story makes clear that many stores and restaurants out here get their fish from these boats. But there are places on Maui that serve fish caught in local waters by Maui-based crews. Of course, you can eat at the very expensive Mama’s Fish House in Kuau, which actually lists on their menu the names of the local boats and their captains that caught the fish they serve. But other local restaurants like Pita Paradise and Miso Phat operate their own boats and catch their own fish.
In any case, it’s best to ask restaurant or store management for details on where exactly they get the fish they serve, and the labor conditions under which it was caught, before you order. If their answers don’t satisfy you, then tell them why and don’t order the fish. Otherwise, none of this will ever change.
Click here to read the Associated Press story.
UPDATE, SEPT. 12
We haven’t received any statements from Hawaii’s elected federal officials on the AP’s fishing story, but on Sept. 9, state Rep. Kaniela Ing, D–South Maui, sent a letter to state Attorney General Douglas Chin asking for an legal opinion on the alleged labor practices involving the Honolulu fishing industry.
“I am extremely alarmed by recent reports of the gross mistreatment of workers aboard American fishing vessels right here in our Aloha State,” Ing said in a Sept. 9 statement. “If these investigations hold any validity, we must act swiftly to end any human rights violations occurring on our docks.
“Without any legal recourse, millions of undocumented workers suffer through starvation wages and inhumane work environments across America,” Ing continued. “It’s an issue too often ignored by mainstream politics. We can all agree that any abuse of any human being has no place in our Aloha State. These investigations reveal why we must act now.”
UPDATE, SEPT. 14
This morning, Senators Hirono and Schatz and Rep. Gabbard finally released statements on the AP’s fishing story. All three are appalled at the working conditions described in the AP’s story. Here is Hirono’s statement:
“I am deeply disturbed by the situation described in the Associated Press’ report on conditions in Hawaii’s longline fishing fleet,” Hirono said. “It is completely unacceptable that the inhumane treatment of any workers–foreign or not–is legal under U.S. federal law. I am engaging the full range of stakeholders, including federal agencies and the industry, to determine the extent of the problem and the appropriate course of action to address it. I welcome the industry’s initial steps to respond to this unacceptable situation, and am encouraged they are taking this seriously. I am committed to finding solutions that improve conditions for workers across the fleet and recognize the role industry can play in addressing this matter.”
And here is Schatz:
“I’m alarmed and disturbed by the conditions reported by the Associated Press,” Schatz said. “In addition to working on expeditiously and independently confirming the veracity of the reports, I have directed my staff to do a comprehensive review of what available tools the Coast Guard as well as the Departments of Justice, Labor, and Homeland Security have under current law to ensure the safety, human rights, and dignity of these crewmen. The crew on these vessels need immediate protections, which is why we are working with the administration to develop a decisive, aggressive, and appropriate response in addition to researching legislative options.”
And here’s the statement from Gabbard:
“The AP’s report that hundreds of foreign workers are being subjected to human rights abuses and inhumane conditions just off our shores is deeply disturbing,” said Gabbard. “This is a problem that has been ignored for years, and must be immediately addressed. We are working with major stakeholders to determine the most expedient course of action to put an end to this unacceptable situation, and protect the safety and human rights of these crewmen, making sure that fair labor standards are enforced for all workers.”
Photo of seared ahi: Angelo DeSantis/Flickr