Fishing industry pushes back following questions about labor practices

Published: Sep. 14, 2016 at 11:11 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 15, 2016 at 1:33 PM HST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Allegations of harsh treatment of workers in Hawaii's longline fishing fleet have made headlines nationally.

Now, the industry is defending itself, one day after a grocery store chain stopped buying tuna from Hawaii's fish auction.

There are 140 longline boats and 700 fishermen in Hawaii's fishing fleet. The undocumented workers' employment is legal.

"It's a very in-demand job for them," Hawaii Longline Association president Sean Martin said.

University of Hawaii professor Uli Kozok interprets for Indonesian fishermen. He's heard complaints of physical abuse aboard the boats.

"They're quite a few stories that I've heard where fishermen were beaten by the captain or by the first officer," he said.

He said fishermen complain of insufficient food and third-world working conditions.

Martin thinks the allegations are unfounded.

"It's a long ways from slave labor and human trafficking," he said.

He insists the fishermen are treated fairly and humanely.

"The idea that there's these abuses going on and nobody knows about it and they haven't been reported -- I can't buy it," he said.

Immigration attorney Clare Hanusz helped a foreign fisherman who sustained a serious eye injury.  He claimed his captain refused to take him to the doctor.

"So I asked the man could you go and show me what kind of medication that you had been given. He went back on the boat and came back with a vial of Visine," she said.

The fishermen sign contracts to work for $500 a month.

Martin said with incentives a fisherman can earn three times his base pay. It's more money than they can make back home.

"They wait years to get an opportunity to come to Hawaii to work on a Hawaii boat," he said.

In March the Coast Guard rescued a captain and two Indonesian crewmen when their fishing vessel sank off the Big Island.

"So far they haven't signed up for another trip. I think they are still traumatized," Kozok said.

He said he reported complaints to the Coast Guard. Hanusz has also spoken with authorities.

Martin said U.S. Custom and Border officers are on the docks daily so fishermen can get help.

"They have every opportunity to address those issues and to do something about it, If they're real," he said.

Some fishermen have worked in Hawaii's longline fleet a decade or longer.

Martin said if they are being abused by their employers, why do they keep coming back?

Copyright 2016 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.