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March 20, 2017

The Beautiful Shores of Hawaii a Hub for Slavery?

Last October the AP’s investigation into Hawaii’s multi-million-dollar fishing industry brought light to possible forced labor offenses happening off the coast of the United States. Hawaii has specific state laws that protect the industry from federal regulations and labor protections, a legal loophole that allows fishing boats to exploit workers and operate with relative impunity despite federal anti-human trafficking laws.

Looking for a better life and economic opportunity, fishermen sign two- or three-year renewable contracts on the promise of a better salary, but then find themselves confined to their boats off the coast of Hawaii because they lack the proper documentation to legally enter the United States. These fishermen work just a few miles off our shores but do so without basic labor protections. Unable to enter the country, these men are confined to boats, where they receive little pay and live in subpar conditions.

Additionally, U.S. federal law requires that captains hold the fishermen’s passports because they are barred from entering the country, a clear violation of U.S. anti-slavery laws. Already vulnerable because of their inability to leave their situations, the fishermen are even more vulnerable to exploitation because they have no documents. 

Following the AP’s investigation, Hawaii State Senator Karl Rhoads introduced a bill that would have restricted commercial fishing licenses to those legally allowed to enter the country. It also would have required potential licensees to apply in person so that fishermen would come face to face with fishing license officials, giving them a chance to identify themselves as trafficking victims. The bill provided essential oversight, simply asking commercial fishing boat owners to provide copies of employment contracts before receiving licenses.

Unfortunately, the bill died in the state senate earlier this month at the hands of a robust industry lobby. Fishing industry officials argue that losing foreign workers would devastate their business. They claim that American workers require higher wages which would drive up the cost of seafood. Some members of the state senate felt the bill failed to significantly improve the safety of the workers, while others questioned if the state was responsible for jurisdiction over the industry rather than the federal government. Regardless, with few advocacy organizations fighting for migrant workers, the industry won this fight.

For now, these fishermen will continue to face poor conditions with no end in sight. It will take commitment from Hawaii legislators to change the law, giving investigators more access to fishing boats to ensure that foreign fishermen are not being exploited by U.S. companies.

U.S. businesses can show a commitment to ending forced labor and exploitation by requiring suppliers of fish from Hawaii to show that they’ve met federal labor laws and that their supply chains are free of forced labor. If the United States wants to continue being a leader in the fight against human trafficking, it must begin at home. Legislators need to act on the landing permit laws in Hawaii to dismantle the business of human trafficking.