Editor’s Note: The nation’s capital may be 5,000 miles away but decisions made there affect our lives every day here in the islands. To keep us all better connected, Kirstin Downey, a kama’aina from Kailua, joins us as a regular columnist. Kirstin has done stints as a reporter at the Washington Post, as an investigator at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and as editor of a newsletter that covers the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She splits her time between Honolulu and Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating reports of abusive labor conditions affecting foreign workers on American fishing vessels in Hawaii, Civil Beat has learned.

A Labor Department official said the agency is “deeply disturbed” by news reports about the long hours, low wages and inhumane living conditions suffered by up to 700 workers from Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. The official said the agency was reaching out to other U.S  government agencies to try to figure out what to do about it.

“The Department of Labor is committed to ensuring that workers are treated with respect, fairness, and dignity,” said Labor Department spokesperson Jason Surbey in an emailed statement.

A widely published report by the Associated Press found that some workers are held in prison-like captivity at the piers of Honolulu and San Francisco when the ships are being unloaded. When at sea, the AP reported, they work up to 20 hours a day at wages as low as 70 cents an hour.

Ahi up for auction in Honolulu

Fish being sold at the Honolulu fish auction are thought to be the catch of U.S fishing boats that employ underpaid foreign workers.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Some officials in Hawaii were apparently aware of the issues to some extent because many state and federal agencies share jurisdiction over the fishing industry on issues of employment, business licensing, regulatory oversight and coastline protection.

Kathryn Xian, executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, said she became aware of the labor abuses and physical confinement of the workers in early 2014, when she was contacted by a family member of a fisherman who felt trapped by his employer. She said she subsequently learned of “egregious” employment conditions in the fleet.

Gavin Gibbon, a spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute trade group, said the employment practices on the vessels as described in the report are “entirely unacceptable.”

He said visa programs allow for migratory and seasonal workers “but in no cases do they allow for abuses of the kind the Associated Press has described.”

Hawaii Politicians Demand Action

Members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation have expressed outrage at the alleged labor abuses. In a statement, U.S. Rep Tulsi Gabbard called the news accounts “alarming,” and said the problem needs to be “immediately addressed.”

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said he was “disturbed” by the news reports and was seeking to independently confirm whether the news accounts are true and if so, how to determine the best way to provide the crews with “immediate protections.”

Colleen Hanabusa

Congressional candidate Colleen Hanabusa.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Colleen Hanabusa, the Democratic candidate to replace the late U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, said that the state’s legislators would be unified in ensuring humane treatment of workers, including the right to return to their homes if they choose.

She added a note of caution, however. “Right now we are responding entirely to anecdotal reports from some crew members on an unknown number of vessels,” she said in an email to Civil Beat.

Hanabusa called for an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, which includes both the Coast Guard and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to assess the true nature and extent of the problem.

Current Laws Make A Solution Difficult

News reports have said that the situation was caused by what has been called a legal loophole. The reality at this time seems to be that the workers are caught in a confusing thicket of labor, environmental protection and immigration laws, some of which have been complicated by efforts to thwart potential terrorists.

But what exactly can be done isn’t quite clear.

The workers, whether they are American or foreign, are exempt by law from the Fair Labor Standards Act, the main piece of federal legislation governing wages and work-hours in the United States. Efforts to increase the scope of the Fair Labor Standards Act are frequently opposed by industry groups.

That problem limits the Labor Department’s ability to take any immediate steps to improve employment standards for the fishers.

Meanwhile, expanding the availability of visas so that foreign-born workers can come and go more easily is politically controversial in an election year where immigration issues have become a flashpoint.

In 2013, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono introduced legislation to give more foreign workers access to transit visas and it won support in the Senate but the measure died when the effort to enact comprehensive immigration reform subsequently collapsed.

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