A human rights outrage that has quietly simmered below the public consciousness in recent years exploded on the national scene just days ago when the Associated Press disclosed near slavery conditions for foreign workers on American fishing boats in Honolulu and San Francisco.

A six-month investigation by Pulitzer Prize winners Martha Mendoza and Maggie Mason corroborated what has been known by senior U.S. officials and the Hawaii restaurant industry, among others, for years: U.S. flagged boats employ undocumented men, confining them to the ships sometimes for years because they lack the required visas to permit them to come ashore.

They’re paid as little as 70 cents an hour and often work 20 hours a day at backbreaking, sometimes dangerous tasks with the approval of the U.S. government but none of its legal protections.

Fish offered fr purchase at teh Hawaii Fish Action
According to the AP report, much of the fish offered for commercial purchase in Hawaii are caught by foreign workers, who account for nearly all the workers in the fleet’s crews. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As Civil Beat’s Washington, D.C., columnist Kirsten Downey reported Friday, the report has prompted the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate, with U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard pushing for immediate action to provide protections for the workers. Congressional candidate Colleen Hanabusa called for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to investigate, as well — it is home to the Coast Guard and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

According to the AP report, Sen. Mazie Hirono sought to provide some help through legislation that would permit the fishers to fly into the United States. That would expand the transit visas already allowed the men, who are permitted to fly home from the Honolulu airport, despite technically never having legally entered the United States. But even that modest assistance did not pass.

Hanabusa and Schatz both made the point that, thus far, the matter consists of media findings that must be officially investigated. That’s of course necessary and appropriate, as well as long overdue.

But there seems little reason thus far to doubt the veracity of the deeply reported story, which is part of the AP’s “Seafood From Slaves” series, already the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The report included extensive corroborative participation from key federal officials, fishing industry leaders and others closely related to the issue.

Given the moral stakes of this matter, we join Hawaii’s federal delegation in calling for swift response that makes the workers’ well-being the top priority. The departments of Labor, Justice and Homeland Security should seize the opportunity to coordinate an immediate interagency investigation that also brings a rapid end to this legally enabled suffering.

‘Floating Prisons’

That can hardly be the end of this matter, though. Civil Beat is among those trying to gain a deeper understanding of how this situation came to be in the first place and how it has been perpetuated throughout the years.

Federal law requires most U.S. commercial fishing vessels to employ crews that are at least 75 percent American, but the late Sen. Daniel Inouye championed an exemption for commercial fishers in Hawaii. That’s a loophole through which an estimated 700 foreign fishers now pass on to boats that one federal boat observer described in the AP report as “floating prisons.”

Consumers who care can and should play a role in holding business and government responsible in this matter, as well.

President Barack Obama is among many who have praised Hawaii commercial fishers. As part of his official statement on his recent expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, he said that action built upon the Hawaii longline fleet’s “global leadership in sustainable practices,” which is part of a “rich tradition of marine protection in Hawaiian waters and world-class, well-managed fisheries.”

That commitment to marine protection and sustainability, however, rings mighty hollow when accompanied by human exploitation made possible through greed and helpful U.S. law.

The big, marquee brands participating in this — including some of Hawaii’s most acclaimed restaurants, chefs and hotels and grocery chains such as Whole Foods, Costco, Sam’s Club — have a lot at stake and must become active participants in addressing this human crisis immediately.

Businesses sanctimoniously marketing high standards for locally caught, sustainable seafood despite having full knowledge of what’s taking place on the boats will have to address that extreme disconnect with words and, even more importantly, actions. Even if the foreign worker practices are ultimately found to be completely legal, that provides zero moral justification for profiting from the daily suffering of hundreds of human beings.

Consumers who care can and should play a role in holding business and government responsible in this matter, as well.

Many already make informed choices to buy products like eggs laid by chickens in free-range, cage-free environments or produce grown without the use of pesticides or meat from animals whose development hasn’t been juiced by steroid hormones. We believe growing awareness over the conditions described in the AP report will lead many to be every bit as judicious about the ahi in their poke bowls or the swordfish dinner at the local restaurant.

One Indonesian fisher who escaped from hellish onboard conditions while his fishing vessel was docked in San Francisco had unforgettable advice for consumers ready to dig into a meal of U.S. seafood.

“Ask, where did this fish come from,” he told the AP. “Is it the kind of fish that you got from someone in slavery?”

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