Fishermen are taking legal action over alleged mistreatment while working in Hawaii’s longliner fleet.
It’s an issue Always Investigating has been tracking for years.
The two fishermen filed a federal lawsuit saying they escaped after being forced into involuntary servitude and getting paid far less than they were promised.
It’s similar to other allegations previously revealed by Always Investigating. These plaintiffs want restitution, and to change what their attorneys say is a pervasive practice in the industry.
When we researched how local resources might have been able to document or reach out to the fishermen, we learned they were completely off the state radar, and they might not be alone.
An Indonesian fisherman, who goes by the singular name Sorihin, tells us through a translator, of his hell on water on a Hawaii longliner.
“I don’t want anybody to go through what I have gone through, because the suffering I went through was terrible,” Sorihin said.
He says he worked 16 to 20 hour work days aboard the Sea Queen II, catching ahi for Hawaii and swordfish for San Francisco. He alleges crew were physically abused in the form of being kicked to be woken up, fed insufficiently, and forced to work despite serious untended injuries.
“We hope that they really get a chance to air the injustices that they experienced and have access to some meaningful recourse for what happened to them,” said Mana Barari, an attorney with Legal Aid Society – Employment Law Center in San Francisco.
A federal lawsuit Barari and others filed Thursday says Sorihin and fellow fisherman Abdul Fatah each paid an Indonesian recruiter and an Hawaii-based agency several hundred U.S. dollars for a two-year placement on what they thought was a reputable U.S. fishing vessel.
They were promised a few hundred dollars a month base, and Sorihin’s contract came with a chance to double that with catch-volume bonuses, plus a chance for raises for performance. After getting picked up in American Samoa by the boat they signed up for, they were forced to transfer at sea days later, commanded to step into a small dinghy in rough water and pull themselves by rope over to the Sea Queen II.
“I felt I was forced into labor on that boat,” Sorihin said.
They wouldn’t see land again for weeks until the Sea Queen II brought its haul to Honolulu for auction. Once the catch was sold, the suit says they were cheated with a fraction of the base pay, no catch bonus, and Sorihin was told it would cost $6,000 to buy his way off the boat.
“These workers don’t have any meaningful protections they can rely on and enforce for themselves and protect themselves with,” Barari said.
The suit says things got worse and more dangerous, with colder and longer days as they switched to catching swordfish en route to San Francisco.
“If you really want to know the truth of the story,” Sorihin said, “in Hawaii, it’s about 16 hours a day. In San Francisco, it is usually over 20 hours.”
Finally one April night, while the owner captain and his crewmember son were off the boat and the crew was asleep, Sorihin and Fatah rummaged through managers’ quarters to find their seized passports and seaman’s papers, escaped onto the pier and into the San Francisco night. They secured trafficking visas, and eventually got green cards.
Antoinette Joyeusaz, daughter of the Sea Queen II owner Thoai Nguyen, spoke to Always Investigating from the mainland and tells us, “The story is completely untrue. They were treated fairly and my father has followed all the rules and regulations, and treated them fairly as crewmen.
“They were not slaves or human trafficked,” she said. “Customs and Border Patrol inspects the boats and makes sure the crewmen are all okay.
“My father had to pay between $10,000 and $15,000 for each of them to come work in the first place, and they broke the contract to work for the full two years,” she said. “They were paid on time and in full whenever due.”
Joyeusaz says they broke into her father’s cabin and stole money, at least $500, on their way out.
“My father had to pay a very high penalty to the federal government because they fled and broke immigration rules,” she added.
What the fishermen say they experienced on board in 2009 and 2010 is similar to allegations Always Investigating exposed several years ago and the Associated Press covered recently.
“Those conditions have been ongoing since our clients experienced them six or seven years ago,” Barari said. “We hope that this case along with your coverage and AP coverage raises a larger awareness around this issue, and we all just start thinking about the kind of labor conditions that are producing the seafood that we eat.”
The news coverage of allegations like Sorihin’s and Fatah’s has led buyers such as Whole Foods to suspend Hawaii fish-auction purchases until fair labor can be proven. The fishing industry here is trying to implement a universal contract it says protects foreign crew’s pay and rights to get help.
Lawmakers and agencies both local and national are coming together to vet potential new or additional solutions to weed out bad operators. Some advocates say it needs to go further.
“There really is no reason Hawaii needs to be exempted from that federal law requiring 75 percent of fishing crew be U.S. citizens,” said Kathryn Xian of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery. “There’s nothing to support that Hawaii should be excluded from that.”
The industry says they couldn’t afford to lose use of the foreign labor exemption granted to them decades ago.
“It’s about a shortage of labor locally to do this kind of work,” said Jim Cook, who owns several vessels in the Hawaii longliner fleet. “We can’t get people who want to do this kind of work. There just isn’t the motivation and the desire among young people in the Hawaiian economy to engage in fishing as a lifetime. It’s really tough stuff.”
Whether U.S. or foreign, all captains and crew have to register with the state for a commercial fishing license. Always Investigating obtained the full longliner fleet license list from the Department of Land and Natural Resources. A couple hundred are U.S. citizens — mostly the captains or managers – and nearly 700 don’t have citizenship. They can work on the boats with only an I-95 crewman landing permit, not a full work visa, and they are not permitted to roam far from the dock when in port. They can only fly out upon departure after years-long contracts; they cannot fly in when starting the work and must instead be picked up from faraway ports.
“We need to see all loopholes closed,” Xian said. “If you work three feet from Hawaii, regardless of whether you don’t set foot on the land, you still should need a work visa. These workers don’t have any reason not to be documented and actually have work visas that protect them and allow our local and federal laws to protect their rights.”
How thoroughly the foreign crewmembers are documented may vary by vessel, however. Always Investigating asked DLNR for Sorihin’s and Fatah’s fishing license files, but they say the Sea Queen II never registered them with the state, begging the question how many more untracked workers are out there.
Anti-trafficking advocates have filed a petition asking the Board of Land and Natural Resources to amend state rules to make the fishing license database more easily accessible and publicly searchable.
“Consumers deserve to know where exactly they’re getting their fish and how their fish is obtained, whether by exploitative labor practices or by fair labor,” Xian said.
Sea Queen II and its newer sister ship Sea Queen IIa still have docking permits here, but the owner doesn’t intend to operate in Hawaii anytime soon. The state says its DLNR fishing licenses are long expired.
The U.S. Coast Guard did recently give the Sea Queen II passing marks on a fishing boat safety exam in June in San Francisco.