HONOLULU – Hawaii’s high-quality seafood is sold with the promise that it’s caught by local, hard-working fishermen. But the people who haul in the prized catch are almost all undocumented foreign workers, confined to American boats for years at a time without basic rights or protections.
About 700 men from impoverished Southeast Asian and Pacific Island nations make up the bulk of the workforce in this unique U.S. fishing fleet. A federal loophole allows them to take the dangerous jobs without proper work permits, just as long as they don’t set foot on shore.
Americans buying Hawaiian seafood are almost certainly eating fish caught by one of these workers.
A six-month Associated Press investigation found fishing crews living in squalor on some boats, forced to use buckets instead of toilets and suffering running sores from bed bugs. There have been instances of human trafficking, active tuberculosis and low food supplies.
“We want the same standards as the other workers in America, but we are just small people working there,” said fisherman Syamsul Maarif, who didn’t get paid for four months. He was sent back to his Indonesian village after nearly dying at sea when his Hawaiian boat sank earlier this year.
Because they have no visas, the men can’t fly into Hawaii, so they’re brought by boat. And since they’re not technically in the country, they’re at the mercy of their American captains on American-flagged, American-owned vessels, catching choice swordfish and ahi tuna that can fetch more than $1,000 apiece. The entire system contradicts other state and federal laws, yet operates with the blessing of U.S. officials and law enforcement.
“People say these fishermen can’t leave their boats, they’re like captives,” said U.S. Attorney Florence Nakakuni in Hawaii. “But they don’t have visas, so they can’t leave their boat, really.”
Each of the roughly 140 boats in the fleet docks about once every three weeks, occasionally at ports along the West Coast, including Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, but mainly at Piers 17 and 38 in Honolulu. Their catch ends up at fancy restaurants and in supermarkets’ premium fish counters across the country, including Whole Foods, Costco and Sam’s Club.
All companies that responded condemned the mistreatment of workers. Costco said it was investigating. Wal-Mart, which owns Sam’s Club, declined to comment.
Whole Foods spokeswoman McKinzey Crossland said only 1 percent of the chain store’s seafood comes from Hawaii, and she has been assured that boat crews are well paid with bonuses and health insurance. She added that the company is looking into the issue.
The AP obtained confidential contracts and interviewed boat owners, brokers and more than 50 fishermen in Hawaii, Indonesia and San Francisco as part of an ongoing global look at labor abuses in the fishing industry. Last year, the AP reported about fishermen locked in a cage and buried under fake names on the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina . Their catch was traced to the United States, leading to more than 2,000 slaves being freed. But thousands more remain trapped worldwide in a murky industry where work takes place far from shore and often without oversight.
In Hawaii, federal contractors paid to monitor catches are troubled by what they’ve seen while living at sea with the men.
“It’s like, ‘How is this even legal? How is this possible?'” said Forest O’Neill, who coordinates boat observers in Honolulu. “They are like floating prisons.”
Under the law, U.S. citizens must make up 75 percent of the crew on most American commercial fishing boats. But influential lawmakers, including the late Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, pushed for a loophole to support one of the state’s biggest industries. It exempted commercial fishing boat owners from federal rules enforced almost everywhere else.
Thus the workers in Hawaii, who catch $110 million worth of seafood annually, are paid as little as 70 cents an hour. They are detained on boats by captains who are required by law to hold their passports. That potentially goes against federal human trafficking laws saying bosses who hold workers’ identification documents can face up to five years in prison.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard routinely inspect the Hawaiian boats. At times, fishermen complain they’re not getting paid and officers say they tell owners to honor the contracts. But neither agency has any authority over actual wages.
“This is a unique situation,” said Coast Guard vessel examiner Charles Medlicott. “But it is legal.”
On some boats the fishermen are paid as little as $350 a month, but many make $500 to $600. A lucky few get a percentage of the catch, making it possible to triple their wages. The men are willing to give up their freedom to take these jobs because the pay is better than they can make back home in developing countries where many people live on less than $1 a day.
Boat owners pay brokers to bring the men from overseas — mostly from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati. It costs about $10,000 to get each fisherman to Hawaii. In the long run, foreign crews end up being cheaper than bait and ice.
Workers typically sign two- or three-year renewable contracts, and some extend repeatedly, staying up to a decade on boats with five to six crew.
In rare cases, boat owners can request passes from federal authorities to take workers ashore for things such as medical care. The men also come on land when their contracts are up and it’s time to go home. Even though they never legally enter the United States, the government provides a transit visa that lets them exit through Honolulu’s airport.
It’s a system that leaves the foreign fishermen potentially vulnerable.
“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.
Signs posted at Pier 17 in six languages offer a hotline to help fishermen who have been trafficked. That’s what happened to Abdul Fatah and Sorihin, who uses one name. The Indonesians ran away from their boat six years ago when it docked in San Francisco and were eventually granted visas after being designated as victims of trafficking.
Sorihin has some advice for American seafood lovers: “Ask, where did this fish come from? Is it the kind of fish that you got from someone in slavery?”