Two Indonesian fishermen filed suit against a tuna boat captain Sept. 22 who they claimed kept them in virtual slavery.
They said that they escaped the boat when their Honolulu-based vessel docked in San Francisco.
Abdul Fatah and Sorihin, who goes by a single name, filed a human labor trafficking lawsuit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against Thoai Van Nguyen. They assert that they were held captive on the Sea Queen II in late 2009 and early 2010 while fishing for tuna, swordfish and other seafood prized by U.S. stores and restaurants.
Efforts by reporters to reach Nguyen, who lives in California, were unsuccessful.
The experience suffered by the two men echo the practice by many fishing vessels which find their crew in Southeast Asia and then keep them in slave-like conditions, meager pay, preventing their crew from leaving the vessel while it is docked and working in dangerous conditions The Associated Press won the Pulitzer Prize this year on their stories about the slave-like conditions in the global fishing industry.
The two men allege in the lawsuit filed in federal court that they were recruited in Indonesia seven years ago to work in Hawaii’s commercial fishing fleet without realizing they would never be allowed onshore. The lawsuit alleges Nguyen forced Sorihin and Fatah to work up to 20-hour shifts and denied them medical treatment.
Most of the approximately 700 crewmembers in the Hawaii fleet are from the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati. Because they have no visas, they aren’t allowed to fly into the country, and are instead picked up at foreign ports and brought to Honolulu by boat.
“With no legal standing on U.S. soil, the men are at the mercy of their American captains. … Since they don’t have visas, they are not allowed to set foot on shore.” reports AP. “The entire system, which contradicts other state and federal laws, operates with the blessing of high-ranking U.S. lawmakers and officials, an Associated Press investigation found.”
Hawaii and federal lawmakers are promising to improve conditions for hundreds of foreign fishermen working in Hawaii’s commercial fleet, and at least one company has already stopped buying fish from the boats following the AP expose’.Whole Foods halted buying seafood caught by foreign crew until it’s clear the men are treated fairly. Last Sunday, Sept. 18, the Hawaii Seafood Council said that starting Oct. 1, the Honolulu Fish Auction will sell fish only from boats that have adopted a new, standardized contract aimed at assuring no forced labor exists on board.
The AP investigation found the fishermen are paid as little as $350 a month, but many also get small bonuses, lifting their monthly pay to $500 or $600. “We always would want workers to have decent working conditions,” said Hawaii Gov. David Ige. The AP report “highlighted how sometimes people fall in a loophole and they don’t get the full protections of labor laws that most of us enjoy.”
After the story was published, boat owners in Hawaii and seafood sellers quickly formed a task force which they said was creating a universal contract. They said they are working with buyers and government officials.
“I am confident that through this process we will ferret out any vessel from the fleet that is involved in forced labor, labor abuse or substandard working conditions and treatment of the crew,” John Kaneko of the Hawaii Seafood Council told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
As the lawsuit winds its way through the courts, Fatah and Sorihin have since been issued visas for victims of human trafficking and are living in the San Francisco area.
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