Federal officials said Thursday they have interviewed dozens of foreign crew members who work on U.S. commercial fishing boats since allegations of labor abuses surfaced, but haven’t found much beyond a few cockroaches.
“They had an opportunity to talk to us freely,” said Ferdie Jose, supervisory officer for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “They didn’t voice any complaints.”
Jose made the statement at what has traditionally been a private quarterly meeting among commercial fishing vessel owners, law enforcement officers and state and federal officials.
It was a marked contrast to one held just a day earlier at the state Capitol, where legislators grilled state officials and fishing industry leaders for nearly three hours in an effort to find ways to improve the working conditions for foreign crew members.
Customs and Border Protection, which facilitates the meetings with the boat owners, decided to open this one to the media because of the public scrutiny that U.S. longline boat owners have been facing since early September when the Associated Press reported allegations of human trafficking and deplorable working conditions for foreign crew members.
The meeting at Pier 19 in Honolulu covered everything from the latest requirements for fire extinguishers on vessels to an update on surprise inspections to ensure crew members are being treated appropriately and are authorized to work on the boats.
“We are all ultimately accountable to the American public,” said Brian Humphrey, CBP director of field operations.
More than 600 foreign crew members — mostly from the Philippines but also Kirabati, Indonesia and Vietnam — work on about 140 U.S. longline vessels, almost all of which are based in Honolulu.
The workers haul in $110 million worth of seafood each year. But when their boats stop to unload at U.S. ports, the foreign crew members are confined to the piers due to federal immigration laws and policies. They have no legal standing to enter the country and are subject to deportation.
The foreign workers are paid as little as $350 a month but many receive bonuses based on the amount of tuna they haul in, which can double or triple their pay. Their wages pale in comparison to the amounts that fishermen earn in other U.S. commercial fishing industries, such as salmon in Alaska.
Federal law generally requires the crews of U.S.-flagged boats to be comprised of at least 75 percent U.S. citizens, but Congress in 1988 carved out an exemption for commercial fishermen who target highly migratory species, such as the tuna and swordfish that the longliners and purse seiners target.
‘The Real Story’
Kinh Anthony Nguyen has been in the fishing business for 27 years. He owns four vessels in Hawaii and usually employs Filipino crew members, four or five per vessel.
He said after the meeting that his workers have earned enough to put their kids through college back home, with some making as much as $1,000-$2,000 per month.
“People don’t understand the real story,”Nguyen said, underscoring that his foreign crew members are happy to work for him despite the long hours and hard labor.
“They cannot make that kind of money in 10 years in their country,” said Loi Hang, who owns two U.S. longline vessels.
Finding U.S. citizens to work as crew has proven virtually impossible, Nguyen said.
“You can find the drug addicts and the alcoholics to get on your boat but then you have problems,” he said.
Joanna Ip, Honolulu-based special agent in charge of U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, said her office has received “many allegations that could be construed as human trafficking” but have not come across a case yet.
Boat By Boat Inspections
Coast Guard, Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection officers allowed members of the media to accompany them after the meeting as they went boat by boat down a nearby pier on a routine check on foreign crew members, inspecting paperwork and talking to captains.
The longline industry claims it is working to police itself, namely through a new Universal Crew Contract that is required for anyone who wants to unload at the Honolulu Fish Auction, the main point of entry for bringing the fish — mostly tuna and swordfish — into the U.S. market.
The contract was designed to try to prevent human trafficking, based on United Nations standards, but federal officials don’t view it as something they can enforce.
Customs and Border Protection does not review contracts, Jose said, adding that the agency just makes sure these fishermen are employed on the vessel.
“Whatever you negotiate,” he said, “is between you folks, not us.”
The federal officials and boat owners said that the foreign workers are not held captive. They are free to leave anytime, and are regularly flown home for special occasions or family emergencies at the vessel owner’s expense.
But concerns still lingered over the way their working environment is set up. The captains are required to retain the crew members’ passports, so the workers first must obtain those. Then there’s the issue of having enough money for a flight if they want to break their contract and leave early, for instance.
Advocates for the foreign fishermen have said the workers may be afraid to complain due to fear of retaliation.
Of the 622 crew members working on 143 vessels, Jose said, 296 “paroles” were issued to people who completed their contracts or decided they wanted to depart early.
“There’s a very large universe of individuals being paroled to depart,” he said.
Jose also said that 11 foreign workers absconded in fiscal year 2016, but all were captured and repatriated.
About 20 vessel owners attended the meeting along with several media outlets and representatives from Hawaii’s congressional delegation.
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