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September 14, 2016

Slave-Caught Fish: Illegal from Thailand, Legal from Hawaii

By Alexander Strain

Goods made with slave labor are categorically banned from import into the United States, thanks to a new provision in the Tariff Act of 1930 that President Obama signed into law in February. But not all domestic companies are being held to the same standards. Case in point: the Hawaiian fishing industry.

According to Hawaii Business Magazine, commercial fishing is one of Hawaii’s largest industries. It is renowned for producing some of the finest edible fish in the world. But the commercial availability of such luxury is currently dependent on reprehensible labor exploitation.

According to recent AP reports there are approximately 700 unprotected foreign workers in the Hawaiian fishing industry, hauling in $110 million annually for restaurants, grocery stores, and markets across the United States. Local restaurants to Pier 38 (the Hawaiian fleet delivery point) sell plates of Sashimi for over $20. Yellowfin Tuna costs $23.99 per pound at Whole Foods Honolulu. Commercially-caught Hawaiian fish is almost certainly acquired by foreign workers, many of whom are subject to labor trafficking, by AP estimates.

Many Hawaiian fishing workers make only 70 cents a day, work 20 hour days, and face crippling debt if they abandon contracts. Doctors who interacted with workers reported numerous health problems including high blood pressure, tuberculosis, injuries from improper equipment, and even scurvy due to shortage of vegetables and fruits.

Working conditions are often squalid and unsafe, featuring buckets for toilets, bed bugs, and reports of workers forced to swim between boats at sea. If workers reject their situation, they are often left penniless and without recourse.

How did we get here? To avoid ostensibly onerous oversight, state legislators pushed for exemptions from specific federal laws addressing obligatory labor protections. As a consequence, the Hawaiian industry can employ foreign workers without basic labor rights guarantees.

The Hawaiian fishing industry employs few local laborers. Instead, workers are transported directly to fishing boats from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, never stepping on U.S. soil, enticed by the promise of lucrative salaries. Workers arrive without visas and are forced by law to surrender their passports to boat captains, contradicting other U.S. policies that prohibit employers from withholding their employees’ identity documents, and thereby making workers vulnerable to forced labor.

The workers are not allowed to enter the United States, essentially imprisoned on the boats for the duration of their contract. Meanwhile the boats have no obligation to follow labor standards governing other major U.S. commercial fishing sites.

While Obama’s February provision banned the import of fish caught by slaves working in Southeast Asia, legal loopholes still protect domestic slavery operations in the fishing industry. Closing the legal loopholes in the Tariff Act represents renewed dedication to protecting workers producing American goods overseas, but the U.S. government should pay just as much attention to legal loopholes that allow foreign workers to be exploited within the United States.