Hundreds of foreign fishermen currently confined to vessels in Honolulu for years at a time would be allowed to come ashore when they dock under legislation introduced Thursday in Congress.
The Sustainable Fishing Workforce Protection Act offers workplace protections a year after an Associated Press investigation found that Hawaii's commercial fishing fleet is crewed by about 700 men who are never allowed off their boats, even when they come into the Honolulu Harbor to unload their catch.
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Just a few miles from the sands of Waikiki, they work without visas, some making less than $1 an hour. Conditions vary — while some of the 140 boats are clean and safe, AP found some fishing crews living in squalor, forced to use buckets instead of toilets and suffering running sores from bed bugs. There have been instances of human trafficking, active tuberculosis and low food supplies.
They lack most basic labor protections during their one or two year stints onboard, catching premium tuna and swordfish sold at some of America's most upscale grocery stores, hotels and restaurants.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, who wrote the law, said she worked with a range of stakeholders in drafting the legislation. The Hawaii Longline Association and the Hawaii Seafood Council did not respond to requests for comment.
"This bill provides necessary protections for foreign fishermen and ensures the continued viability of Hawaii's longline fishing fleet, which is important to our culture," Hirono said.
The bill, supported by all four of Hawaii's representatives in the House and Senate, would close a loophole in the law that has allowed the Hawaii fleet to employ men from impoverished Southeast Asian and Pacific nations for a fraction of the pay an American worker would get, in part by collecting them by boat from Pacific islands.
Under the new law, the fishermen would get their visas in their home countries, just like other immigrants. This would allow them to fly into Honolulu for the fishing jobs, eliminating the two-week trip at sea. They also would be protected by federal labor law at the docks, and labor inspectors would join the Coast Guard for at sea protections. It was unclear whether salaries would be affected.
State Rep. Kaniela Ing said he was glad to see the legislation coming to fruition.
"It's nice to see some action on the federal level. That's really the only place it can be addressed in terms of the visas," he said.
But he said Hawaii should adopt labor protections for the fishermen because the state Department of Land and Natural Resources issues their fishing licenses. In particular, Ing said the state should review the contracts the workers sign.
"We never see what the workers agreed to. So we never know if there's working violations," he said.
Hawaii's Attorney General Douglas Chin, who has ruled the men are lawfully admitted to the state and should be allowed to fish, said he hadn't read the bill.
"But generally, anything that clarifies the visa status of foreign fishermen and protects them from exploitation is something I would support," he said.
Mendoza reported from Santa Cruz, California