HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday calling for more oversight of the commercial fishing industry after an Associated Press investigation found hundreds of foreign fishermen confined to boats and some living in subpar conditions.
The bill would require fishing boat owners who want a commercial license in Hawaii to provide state officials with a copy of employment contracts held with every fisherman on board before the license is granted.
Without those contracts, there's no way for state officials to check whether fishermen are getting what they were promised or if an investigation should be launched about possible human trafficking, said Rep. Kaniela Ing, who introduced the proposal.
"I think we've learned through decades of democracy that industry self-policing doesn't usually work," Ing said.
The bill passed the House Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs Tuesday and it goes next to the Judiciary Committee.
Ing's proposal calls for keeping records of employment contracts with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which issues fishing licenses.
Representatives from the commercial fishing industry opposed the bill, saying the industry is already highly regulated by the federal government. The industry also initiated a universal contract to be signed by crew members and boat owners, and every active boat in the fleet that has landed has returned those contracts, said John Kaneko of the Hawaii Seafood Council.
The bill, which only applies to migrant workers, doesn't include anything about spot audits or who's going to enforce the contracts, Ing said.
"We went so soft with this," Ing said. "We're not interfering with the contract...We're not even setting minimum labor standards. We're just saying whatever you've agreed to, even if it's horrendous, we just want to see to be sure that that's being met. That's it."
"People agree to horrendous things all day long in contracts," said Jim Cook of the Hawaii Longline Association. "What makes you think it's the purview of the state of Hawaii to get into the business between an individual and a company?"
Contracts with foreign fishermen are not necessarily as straightforward as a contract between a boat captain and a fisherman. Often the boat captain contracts with an international broker to provide workers, and the broker has a separate employment contract with those workers, often executed overseas.
"The meat of the contract — their working conditions, when they get paid — is all in that agency contract, but there's no records of that here," Ing said.
Bruce Anderson, administrator for the Division of Aquatic Resources — the office within the Department of Land and Natural Resources that issues commercial fishing licenses — said he was concerned about the process laid out in the bill.
"For fishermen to come into our office and for our staff to inspect a contract is way beyond what we're in a position to do," Anderson said. "We wouldn't know if the contract was legitimate or not. We wouldn't know what to do with it."
The AP investigation found around 140 fishing boats based in Honolulu were crewed by hundreds of men from impoverished Southeast Asia and Pacific Island nations. The seafood is sold at markets and upscale restaurants across the U.S.
Conditions on the boats vary, and some workers report that they are treated well. However, the AP found some men are paid as little as 70 cents an hour. Others had to use buckets instead of toilets, suffered running sores from bed bugs or sometimes lacked sufficient food.
In written testimony submitted before Tuesday's hearing, Cook and Sean Martin of the Hawaii Longline Association argued that the foreign fishermen "possess legal standing and have legal recourse."
However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents now stamp "Refused" on every fisherman's landing permit. That means they are technically not allowed to set foot on U.S. soil, says customs.
The men are not permitted to fly into the country because they do not have visas and must instead arrive by boat. In rare cases, including medical emergencies, the workers can be paroled to go ashore temporarily, but customs has said they still do not have documentation to be formally admitted.
Though technically not permitted to leave their vessels, they do venture onto the guarded piers briefly to socialize and use restrooms. However, their movement is tightly restricted.
"If the document is stamped "refused," why in the world is the department accepting it?" Ing asked during the hearing.
Alton Miyasaka of the Division of Aquatic Resources replied that the refusal means the fisherman cannot land in a U.S. port.
"His landing is refused," Miyasaka said. "But he doesn't have to land to fish."
Ing believes that by accepting the forms marked "refused" and granting fishing licenses, the Division of Aquatic Resources is breaking the law.
"If the department doesn't change the way they do these things, you're all going to be ripe for lawsuits," Ing said.