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October 14, 2016

Fallout from Revelations of Slavery in Hawaii Fishing Industry

By Alexander Strain

AP recently reported on suspected labor exploitation in Hawaii’s multi-million-dollar fishing industry, prompting a robust response from advocacy organizations, businesses, and legislators. Documenting the hardships of 770 foreign workers confined to Hawaiian fishing boats almost year-round, AP brought attention to a troubling legal loophole in Hawaii’s labor statutes: Hawaiian fishing boats are precluded by state legislation from federal regulations guaranteeing federal labor protections.

As a consequence of this legal loophole, examples of labor exploitation abound—including seizure of identity documents, severe underpayment, deplorable safety and hygiene conditions, and insurmountable debt from recruitment fees and contract-breach.

Whole Foods responded to the revelations by dropping goods from the Hawaii fish auction from their three Hawaii stores until there is suitable proof that no labor exploitation exists in the supply chain. Other smaller businesses followed suit, expressing similar sentiments about rooting out all instances of labor exploitation and trafficking in delivery of goods.

On the day the report was published, members of the Hawaiian Longline Association, fishing vessel owners, and the Hawaii Seafood Council formed a task force to oversee rectifying the allegations of labor exploitation. The task force drafted a contract in response to the critical report, requiring signature from all owners by October 1st in order to continue selling fish at the Hawaii fish auction. The contract purportedly protects workers from further exploitation by guaranteeing certain hiring and workplace practices will be adopted.

The contract however still lets owners set the minimum salary, allows workers to spend the entire year at sea (15 trips, 10 to 40 days each), and still requires workers to stay on board while the boat owner holds their identity and immigration documents. The contract under scrutiny is shown to be little more than a good will gesture, rather than a consequential path to ensuring proper treatment of foreign workers in this industry.

Cornell University Stephen Yale-Loehr said the new contract simply reinforces the current deplorable situation by emphasizing that the crew members have no real rights. Yale-Loeher stresses that “Congress should repeal the loophole that exempts U.S. fishing captains from having to provide basic labor protections to their crew.” Without further legislative attention on the legal loopholes that protect opportunities for traffickers and criminal enterprises to engage in exploitation, such gestures will have almost no influence on changing labor and employment behaviors.

Thankfully Hawaiian congressional leaders, Senators Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz, as well as Representative Tulsi Gabbard, all said they are exploring solutions to the maltreatment exposed by the AP report. Additionally, businesses should follow Whole Foods’ example by requiring their suppliers to show that their supply chain is free from forced labor. Ending these exploitative labor practices will require commitment from Congress, the business community, and civil society organizations working together to dismantle the business of human trafficking.