Modern-day slavery alleged in fishing fleet

Is it a case of modern day slavery? Bad working conditions? Or just sour grapes over pay? Allegations are flying about distress on the docks from the crew of some Honolulu fishing vessels.

Honolulu’s fishing fleet can be floating gold mines. Their catch can net a six-figure haul at the fish auction after just days at sea. They’re raking it in, we’re eating it up.

But for the workers on board some ships, this is no luxury cruise.

“When we started hearing her story we felt it had all the hallmarks of human trafficking,” said Soo Sun Choe, of immigrant-rights advocates Pacific Gateway Center, referring allegations brought forth to them by the relative of some of the crew.

From her and others, there are allegations of hunger, thirst, untreated illness and injury, unpaid or low paid wages, abuse and even suspicious death.

“There are bed bugs, workers are often not fed on time, when they pull into the harbor they may be asking others for food,” Choe said. “This is actually the second or third case coming to us within the past year.”

KHON2’s Action Line has also heard about alleged victims from advocates on their behalf who are crying out for help.

“I feel like they are slaves because they cannot go out, they do not have any money like everybody,” says T. Robinson, who wants to be identified publicly by only her first initial to avoid what she fears will be retaliation from powerful business and political officials in her native Kiribas. “When they work they’re supposed to get paid but they don’t get paid.”

She shows us contracts written in English for crew from Kiribas who don’t speak English, pay stubs that deduct from the few hundred dollars a month wage to whittle down to nearly nothing when payday finally comes after more than 2 years

“They just recruit on the road,” she explains of the hiring process in Kiribas. “They’re walking on the street and they say, oh you like to work? You want a job? They’re so excited, they think they’re going to come to the states, but they didn’t know that they come over here, they’re locked up here.”

“Here” is at the piers, behind a gate in Honolulu Harbor, an international immigration line they cannot cross, so we go to them. We ask, as Robinson translates, when was the last time they got paid?

“He says every month when they got back from fishing the owner paid him,” Robinson translates for one of the workers, “but the rest, they haven’t got paid yet.”

“Do they trust that it’s coming later?” KHON2 asks.

“They don’t really know,” she says. “They’re not sure.”

As for their work conditions…

“Some of them they’re OK,” she says they tell her. “Some of them they’re scared to say something.”

Robinson has gone to federal and state agencies to raise the red flag. Choe of Pacific Gateway Center explains the follow-ups: “Everybody’s saying there’s something wrong with this case but nobody really wants to take responsibility for it, they all say it’s not within their jurisdiction.”

But it’s not for lack of responding and investigating; many federal authorities can’t intervene in things like civil contract payment disputes, no matter how unfortunate. Federal waivers allow an almost entirely foreign crew for Hawaii fisheries. The law requires the presence of a contract for every crewman, but there appears to be little in the way of ensuring those deals are understandable to the crew, to enforce the terms, or to provide civil remedies in cases of alleged breach.

The FBI told KHON2:

“The FBI’s human trafficking program is focused on combating the exploitation of individuals who are forced into prostitution or modern slave labor. When evaluating complaints for potential investigation, the FBI looks to see if workers have been subjected to force or coercion or are being held against their wills. A key question is always: ‘Are the workers free to leave?'”

“If they wanted to go home, sometimes they’re kept here because they have no one to replace them,” Robinson, “they’re kept here another 6 months or more.”

Their key identity documents including passports are allegedly locked away from them.

KHON2 asks Choe, “What about it makes you think it’s human trafficking vs. just bad working conditions?”

“The owners not having control over their own personal identity documents is one indication, attitude of submissiveness toward the owner, and extreme reluctance to say anything negative while at the same time suffering terrible working conditions,” Choe said.

The U.S. Coast Guard says it has lifesaving equipment, emergency equipment and crew training oversight, and told KHON2, “We do not conduct health and welfare checks on these vessels. However, if an egregious health or welfare situation is brought to our attention, we would typically notify the appropriate federal, state, or local agency with appropriate jurisdiction to resolve the matter.”

The federal Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection is looking into our questions. We also went to the state Department of Labor and asked what they could do.

“It’s a very complex issue,” Dept. of Labor spokesperson Bill Kunstman said. “If people file complaints we need to examine them on a case-by-case basis, but in general we would want to make sure that everybody would work that’s paid for their work.”

What’s still unclear is how many of the boats it’s really happening on — if any — and how much the boat owners know about what’s supposedly going on. Same for the labor agencies that act as intermediary. We tried to reach the labor agent in question in Robinson’s cases, even tracking down storefronts in Hawaii associated with the same international owner. No response yet.

Fish retailers told us they have no idea about fishery labor conditions, they just buy from the auctions.

We reached out to lawmaker Rep. Karl Rhoads, also a board member of the Pacific Gateway Center, asking what can be done to bring the various state and federal agencies to the table, since their individual oversight and responsibilities have to toe very specific and separate lines.

“My intention is to poke and prod and make sure all the agencies are doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Rhoads said, “and if we have to take it to the international level, it’s a bad enough situation that I intend to do that, too.”

Meanwhile, advocates for the fisherman worry things could get worse without more intervention of some kind.

“Ahi is very expensive, the price is staying high, there is going to be pressure on the market,” Choe said, “and there’s going to be pressure on these fishermen to keep bringing the fish in, no matter what the labor conditions are.”

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