Longline fishing’s new system ties auction access to fair-labor

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Starting Tuesday, Hawaii’s longline fishing industry is implementing a multi-pronged system it says will help protect crew from labor abuse, mistreatment and substandard working conditions.

It’s in response to pay- and living-condition complaints Always Investigating exposed years ago.

Hawaii’s longline fishing industry is laying out self-policing protocols.

The mostly foreign and undocumented crew at the heart of the concerns are there under federal laws allowing it — practices the congressional delegation and federal agencies are reviewing. But advocates are still calling on state agencies to get involved.

We caught up with the longliner Sea Pearl down near Pier 38 just as it was prepping to head out for weeks at sea. The captain and owner let us aboard and we talked to the crew without the bosses looking on.

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They tell us it’s hard work but they light up talking about why they love to do it. “We go fishing, pull in the big fish, bigger than me sometimes!” crewmember Carlo Olarte Jr. explains. “Everybody’s happy and the captain is roaring, ‘yeah, come on, bring the fish up!’ We’re enjoying it.”

“Sometimes the weather is hard,” crewmember Ronald Ponce says, “but the conditions are good.”

“As long as you love what you’re doing, you enjoy it,” Olarte says. KHON2 asks how’s the money? “We get good money, everybody knows that,” he said.

The Sea Pearl crew can bring in $12,000 to $18,000 a year. They tell me that’s a fortune for their families back in the Philippines and many have gladly re-upped their contracts. Some were on their 6th year on the vessel.

“Best conditions you can possibly have,” Sea Pearl Captain Dave Hibbard says. “Everything is air-conditioned inside, they have very nice living quarters. They get all the food, whatever they want. We let them order the groceries, whatever they want.”

The foreign workers are not protected by Hawaii or Affordable Care Act laws mandating any health coverage, but on this boat, crew says they’ve been well cared for.

“He got a toothache before,” Olarte says of his fellow crewmember standing nearby. “When we arrive here, the captain and him, they go to the dentist and they fix it. Every amount that they paid to the doctor and the medicine, it was covered by the company.”

We’ve found not all boats or crews see or share the same conditions and pay. Some are living what they call the high life, while others feel stuck being less than low. Labor and immigrant rights groups have called conduct and pay aboard some other boats in the fleet akin to modern-day slavery. Contracts we’ve reviewed bear a fraction of the Sea Pearl’s wages. Many in those circumstances started coming forward to Always Investigating years ago.

After weeks of grueling work at sea in what they called cramped and filthy conditions on a boat arranged through an agency, foreign fishing crews from Kiribati told KHON through a translator getting paid isn’t guaranteed.

“When they work, they’re supposed to get paid, but they don’t get paid,” said T. Robinson, a relative who helped translate for some Kiribati crew when we talked to them back in 2013 from behind a gate in Honolulu Harbor, an international immigration line they cannot cross. “He says every month when they got back from fishing, the owner paid him, the rest, they haven’t got paid yet.”

“Do they trust that it’s coming later?” KHON2 asked. “They don’t really know,” they told Robinson. “They’re not sure.”

That’s despite contracts in English, promising a few hundred dollars a month, but not until the end of the voyage.

“They’re held captive because they want to get paid,” explains Dr. Tin Myain Thein of the Pacific Gateway Center, which assists with immigrant and refugee issues, including allegations of human trafficking.

For some, once the end-of-voyage comes, unexpected deductions whittle wages down to barely any net pay after a year or more of fishing.

“These changes, once you’re out at sea, should not happen,” Thein said. “What you’ve agreed to on land, they should be held accountable for that.”

Similar allegedly broken contracts were submitted to Hawaii’s Department of Labor on Monday in a complaint asking them to get involved since the boats use state Department of Transportation piers and get state Department of Land and Natural Resources fishing licenses, and they are part of the local fish marketplace.

This mostly foreign labor — about 700 of them — work offshore legally under an exemption special to Hawaii’s fishery going back decades. All crew, foreign or American, are exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay. There’s little to no reach into any of the foreign labor matters by Hawaii’s labor, tax, health or other regulatory infrastructure. General excise tax is paid on all vessel revenue, but foreign workers don’t make any state or federal income tax filings, employers don’t pay unemployment insurance for them and they’re not entitled to collect, and costs of medical issues are customarily covered by vessel owners.

The U.S. Coast Guard inspects vessels annually — Customs & Border Patrol monitors both for immigration security and for humane conditions. Federal fishery observers with NOAA — there to monitor catches and protected species — get to eyeball real life conditions on 1 in every 5 voyages of the 140-vessel fleet.

“Some observers in the past have said the conditions are bad and they really need to clean things up,” explains NOAA observer program manager John Kelly. “The de-briefer then will have them record and write it down, and pass it on to our Office of Law Enforcement and to Coast Guard, and a lot of information will end up with Homeland Security.”

KHON2 asks how often are they seeing something and saying something when it comes to labor and working conditions? “It’s not really that often, it’s more every now and then,” Kelly said.

An Associated Press story revisited these conditions in a national report this month. A slew of federal and state agencies have now put the matter on their front-burners. Retailers like Whole Foods say they won’t buy the fish until labor is proven to be fair.

The Hawaii longline fishing industry set up a string of new protocols all ships must use or they won’t get to sell the fish at auction.

“We have developed a universal crew contract,” explains Jim Cook, owner of several longline fishing boats. “It’s in all the languages of the people.”

Honolulu Fish Auction, Pier 38
Honolulu Fish Auction, Pier 38

That contract, which Cook said has been translated into the language of each of the workers signing it, is being distributed Tuesday. If vessels can’t show they’re using the contract by October 1, they’ll be blackballed from the auction until they do.

“Once a standard has been set of the paper trail, documentation, making sure no forced labor is occurring, United Fishing Agency will only accept fish and will only sell fish on behalf of vessels that have proven through this process that they don’t have these accusatory practices going on,” auction manager Michael Goto told Always Investigating the day Whole Foods suspended its purchasing.

And there’s a second step in the industry’s self-policing coming up.

“The vessel audit is simply a physical audit of the boat: Is this a habitable boat, what are the problems here?,” Cook said.

Labor advocates applaud the effort but question if an industry can police itself adequately.

“If they’re going to self-certify, I don’t think that’s enough,” Thein said. “Somebody else has to be going out there to interview the workers, how they were treated?”

The longliners say this concern is addressed in the third prong of their effort to weed out problem operators, namely independent validation.

“We’re hiring people to go out and talk independently to crews and have them go up and say ‘this is my problem,'” Cook said.

They’ve posted placards on the boats telling staff where to go or who to call for help.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection tells Always Investigating that, in the meantime, they continue to keep watch and encourage crew to come forward if mistreated.

“CBP’s front-line employees play an important role in combating human trafficking, receiving annual required training that equips them with important information on how to properly recognize and report suspected human trafficking,” a U.S. CBP spokesperson told KHON. “CBP officers frequently patrol the pier to ensure there are no violations, and conduct interviews with foreign crew members to ensure they have safe, healthy, and amenable working conditions. Multi-language signs are posted around the pier encouraging crew members to report mistreatment or other labor abuses.

“CBP continues to conduct humanitarian operations within the Honolulu fishing fleet, allowing crews to have access to showers and restroom facilities at the pier, purchase personal hygiene and other necessities at the dockside store, and mingle with fellow crew members from other vessels,” the spokesperson said. “In addition, CBP periodically meets with vessel captains and vessel owners to discuss current regulations and issues.”

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