Hawaii lawmakers endeavored Wednesday to find ways to improve the working conditions of foreign crew members on U.S. commercial fishing boats and address allegations of human trafficking.
Rep. Kaniela Ing, chair of the House Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources, and Hawaiian Affairs, peppered a dozen state officials and fishing industry leaders with questions about what can be done to boost sanitation, low pay, access to contract information and overall accountability.
“Nobody wants to decimate the industry,” Ing said. “We just want humans to be treated as they should.”
The nearly three-hour legislative briefing was prompted by problems reported last month by the Associated Press regarding several hundred foreign crew members — mostly from the Philippines but also Kirabati, Indonesia and Vietnam — who work on about 140 U.S. longline vessels.
These foreign workers, some of whom are reportedly paid as little as $350 a month, haul in $110 million worth of seafood each year. But when the boats stop to unload at U.S. ports, usually Honolulu where most are based although sometimes on the West Coast, the foreign crew members are unable to go ashore due to federal immigration laws and policies.
Many of the vessels lack bathroom facilities, bed bugs are pervasive, and food and clothing are sometimes inadequate. The industry maintains that it is working to address the problems, and that many crew members are content with their working conditions and often renew their contracts so they can continue sending money home to their families abroad.
‘Relying On Assumptions?’
About 12 of the 30 lawmakers who serve on the three committees that constituted the panel attended the briefing, which Ing steered.
He honed in early on the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Bruce Anderson, DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources administrator, said his agency licenses the fishermen, often without seeing them in person. He said that’s a policy that changed due to lack of resources after the industry grew from roughly 50 boats in the late-1980s.
Anderson said his office assumes the American boat captains help their foreign crews understand the English-language application for a commercial marine license if they do not speak English.
“So you’re relying on assumptions?” Ing asked.
Anderson replied that that if someone requested translation services, “we could probably find those.”
Lance Collins, a Maui attorney, later told the panel that government agencies are legally required to provide translation services in situations like this that involve such a sizable group of non-English speakers.
“The only reason for our issuing the licenses is to get information on the amount of fish they’ve caught and where they’ve caught them,” Anderson said.
‘A Vital Piece’
The lawmakers learned that the Division of Aquatic Resources maintains a database of information about the foreign workers without asking for key contract information.
Anderson said his agency gathers enough information from the licenses to say how many foreign crew members are working on Hawaii longline boats in any given year, what countries they are from and what vessels they are on, among other private contact information.
He said that information has not been shared with the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, in part because no one has requested it except the media.
“You’re currently the only department with a record of everyone who is out fishing,” Ing said. “That’s why this is a vital piece.”
Anderson agreed to provide the information to lawmakers at the request of Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the Water, Land and Agriculture Committee.
But while the division requires applicants to disclose their hair and eye color, Anderson said he would have to ask the attorney general if it would be OK to also ask for the contracts between the foreign crew members and the vessel owners as part of the licensing process.
Ing views that as a fundamental piece of information that’s missing. He said if the state had on file copies of the workers’ contracts, a third-party auditor or government official could then easily reference that to ensure they are being treated appropriately and paid fairly.
“I would be somewhat hesitant to put on a lot of other conditions for licensure,” Anderson said, but added that he’s open to the idea if it gets legal clearance.
Anderson reiterated that he felt the information currently collected is sufficient. Foreign crew must provide their passports and the federal Customs and Border Protection form I-95 “Crewman’s Landing Permit” as qualifying documents for a commercial marine license.
Ing said the I-95 form is “legally absurd.” It’s a deportation document that says the foreign crew members do not have permission to come ashore in the U.S. and must be “detained on board,” but that it’s fine for them to work on the U.S. boats.
Alton Miyasaka of the Division of Aquatic Resources said the state may not be able to request the crew member’s contract because it’s not related to the applications.
Anderson suggested that the federal government should allow the crew members to work under temporary work visas like migrant farm workers. This would address health care and other issues, but keep the pay flexible.
The reason the U.S. has migrant workers today is because the farmers can’t find U.S. workers to do the job, he said, noting that it’s the same in the fishing industry.
In 1988, Congress exempted commercial fishermen who target highly migratory species, such as the tuna and swordfish that the longliners go after, from the Jones Act requirement that U.S. citizens comprise at least 75 percent of each boat crew.
That exemption is what has enabled Hawaii’s longline industry to hire predominantly foreign workers. In general, only the captains are U.S. citizens.
‘Economically, They’re Confined’
Jim Cook, an influential owner who has six boats and a marine supply store, told lawmakers the industry has taken steps to address the workers’ conditions, including the implementation of a Universal Crew Contract that is required for anyone who wants to unload at the Honolulu Fish Auction, the main point of entry for bringing the fish into the U.S. market.
The contract requires crews to provide personal identification information and a copy of their U.S. customs entry documents.
The contract says payments will be made within four days of landing and recruiting fees will be paid by the vessel owner. It also makes it clear that visas will not be issued and crew members must remain on board the vessel except as allowed by Customs and Border Patrol.
The contract also says the vessel owners will keep the crew members’ passports, but that they will be given a copy and are free to access their passports at any time.
Cook, who serves as a board member of the Hawaii Longline Association, a trade group that looks after the vessel owners’ interests, said the group is “concerned about the allegations being made.”
He assured the lawmakers that the industry is responding to the allegations, and called the AP article “a little questionable.”
The Hawaii Longline Association was formed in 2000 primarily to fight legal battles against allegations that the fishermen were killing endangered species and harming the environment. It maintains a budget of roughly $700,000 a year, collected from the fishermen based on their catch, and about 90 percent of it goes to court cases, Cook said.
Ing highlighted how that legal fund can make it difficult, if not impossible, for foreign crew members to take boat owners to court.
“Economically, they’re confined,” he said.
When asked who represents the crew members’ interests, Cook said, “They represent themselves.”
Tin Myaing Thein of the Pacific Gateway Center, which works with human trafficking victims and has experience with incidents involving Tawainese commercial fishing vessels, said it would be “really difficult” for foreign crew members to mount a case against the Hawaii longliners if there was an issue.
In one of the Taiwanese incidents, she said when the human trafficking and forced labor problems were uncovered and the crew were rescued in Hawaii, they opted to just go back to their home country and not pursue any charges or lawsuits.
Prior to the legislative briefing, about a dozen protesters held a press conference in the Capitol Rotunda to voice their opposition to the alleged human trafficking and poor working conditions for the foreign crews.
“We risk everything we know as justice if we don’t end this flawed system,” said Khara Jabola-Carolus, chapter coordinator of the group AF3IRM Hawaii.
“It’s really about strict regulations and third party oversight,” said Marti Townsend, head of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii Chapter.
“Everything that’s happening on these boats is legal,” she said. “It’s just immoral.”