HONOLULU—Pier 17 doesn’t even show up on most Honolulu maps. Cars whiz past it on their way to Waikiki’s famous white sand beaches. Yet few locals, let alone passing tourists, are aware that just behind a guarded gate, another world exists: foreign fishermen confined to American boats for years at a time.
Hundreds of undocumented men are employed in this unique U.S. fishing fleet, due to a federal loophole that allows them to work but exempts them from most basic labour protections. Many come from impoverished Southeast Asian and Pacific nations to take the dangerous jobs, which can pay as little as 70 cents an hour.
With no legal standing on U.S. soil, the men are at the mercy of their American captains on American-flagged, American-owned vessels, catching prized swordfish and ahi tuna. Since they don’t have visas, they are not allowed to set foot on shore. 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.
The fleet of around 140 boats docks about once every three weeks, occasionally at ports along the West Coast, including Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, but mainly at Piers 17 and 38 in Honolulu. Their catch ends up at restaurants and premium seafood counters across the country, from Whole Foods to Costco, and is touted by celebrity chefs such as Roy Yamaguchi and Masaharu Morimoto.
Americans buying Hawaiian seafood are almost certainly eating fish caught by one of these workers, who account for nearly all the fleet’s crew.
A single yellowfin tuna can fetch more than $1,000, and vendors market the catch as “sustainable seafood produced by Hawaii’s hard-working fishermen.”
But workers such as Indonesian Syamsul Maarif aren’t protected or compensated like locals. He was sent home to Indonesia after nearly dying when his boat sank 160 miles off Hawaii. He lost everything, and said it took four months to get his pay.
“We want the same standards as the other workers in America, but we are just small people working there based on the contract that we signed,” he said. “We don’t have any visa. We are illegal, so we cannot demand more.”
Over six months, the AP obtained confidential contracts, reviewed dozens of business records and interviewed boat owners, brokers and more than 50 fishermen in Hawaii, Indonesia and San Francisco. The investigation found men living in squalor on some boats, forced to use buckets instead of toilets, suffering running sores from bed bugs and sometimes lacking sufficient food. It also revealed instances of human trafficking.
This report is part of the AP’s ongoing global look at labour abuses in the fishing industry, stretching from Southeast Asia to America’s own waters. Last year, the AP reported on fishermen locked in a cage and buried under fake names on the remote Indonesian island village of Benjina . Their catch was traced to the United States, leading to more than 2,000 slaves being freed. But thousands more remain trapped worldwide in a murky industry where work takes place far from shore and often without oversight.
In Hawaii, federal contractors paid to monitor catches said they are troubled by what they’ve seen while living weeks at a time at sea with the men.
“You get that sort of feeling that it’s like gaming the system,” said Forest O’Neill, who co-ordinates the boat observers in Honolulu. “It’s a shock. It becomes normal, but it’s like, ‘How is this even legal? How is this possible?’ … They are like floating prisons.”
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this report from Jakarta, Indonesia.