WASHINGTON — Hawaii’s government leaders came in for withering criticism Tuesday at a Capitol Hill forum on abusive labor conditions for foreign fishermen employed as contract workers.
Witnesses described working conditions on the Hawaii-based tuna fleet as “tragic,” “gruesome,” “unconstitutional” and “brutal,” asserting that the foreign workers have been exempted from U.S. labor laws and protections to boost the profits of the fishing industry.
In September, the Associated Press reported that some workers have been 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 for wages as low as 70 cents an hour. Activists said the men were forced to sleep in shifts, lacked hygienic toilet facilities and were denied medical care when they were injured.
Hawaii longline industry leaders said in September they had formed a task force and hired an expert on slavery in response to the media reports, but in October members of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council said there were no serious abuse issues on Hawaii tuna boats.
On Tuesday, forum panelist Mark Lagon, a Georgetown University scholar and former State Department specialist in human trafficking, said that officials appear to be more concerned about the well-being of fish and the environment than what he called the “human dignity” of the people who deliver seafood to their tables.
In his experience, he said, slave-like working conditions happen when “government officials are apathetic” and in some countries, actually “complicit.”
The forum was organized by the staff of U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who serves as ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. It was not an official hearing of the committee, which is controlled by the majority Republicans.
About 60 people attended the event, including Capitol Hill staffers and officials from the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Justice Department.
It was held in a meeting room located just upstairs of a giant statue of King Kamehameha in the rotunda of the Capitol Visitors Center.
John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, said the industry is working hard to understand the underlying problems, and is conducting what he called “third-party audits” to investigate conditions. He said most ships are managed humanely.
He said the captains may not be solely to blame for mistreatment of workers, because engineers and first mates are also supervisors.
“We don’t know what happens when a ship goes out to sea,” he told attendees.
Connelly cautioned that government regulatory reform takes time. He said he has been negotiating with Thailand since 2008 to improve conditions for shrimp workers who were employed as slaves. He said reforms happen more quickly when government foreign affairs or finance agencies actively oversee the process of making regulatory changes.
“At its core, the solution is a government solution,” Connelly said.
Kathryn Xian, executive director of the Hawaii-based Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, said that the fishing industry is employing foreigners on the longline fleet because they are “illegal.” She said they are therefore cheaper, than hiring U.S. citizens.
“The temptation for profits supersedes anything else,” she said.
Xian said she told a number of state officials in Hawaii about the abusive conditions aboard the fishing vessels but that they refused to take action, saying they couldn’t figure out how to prosecute the cases.
“Probably some of us have had the product of slavery in our mouths — which is a bitter taste.” — Paul Greenberg, author
She also speculated that the hiring of foreign workers could heighten terrorism risks in Hawaii. She said it would be “easy for a terrorist” to sign on board one of the fishing vessels, then swim to shore upon arrival in Hawaii and commit acts of violence.
Several witnesses suggested consumers should reconsider the morality of buying seafood obtained under abusive conditions.
“Probably some of us have had the product of slavery in our mouths — which is a bitter taste,” said Paul Greenberg, author of “Four Fish” and “American Catch,” books about seafood consumption and aquaculture.
Xian said she has stopped eating ahi as a protest.
Lagon said a consumer boycott might be a good way to highlight the problem and propel change to occur more quickly.
Connelly, of the National Fisheries Institute, said a boycott is not a good idea because managers who are operating responsibly would be punished, not just wrong-doers.
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A Kailua girl, Kirstin Downey is a special correspondent for Civil Beat. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post, she is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal," "Isabella the Warrior Queen" and an upcoming biography of King Kaumualii of Kauai. She can be reached at email@example.com.