Could state fishing licenses be leveraged to bring better conditions for foreign labor aboard Hawaii’s longline fishing fleet? Lawmakers and the agency issuing them are exploring solutions.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources says while it can’t prevent giving nor revoke fishing licenses to qualified crews, they are looking at whether their processes can or need to change.
In the years since foreign laborers and concerned advocates came forward to KHON2’s Always Investigating about rock bottom pay, broken contracts and unsafe conditions on their fishing boats, authorities, agencies and lawmakers tried to intervene.
“I promised that I would investigate, and I did,” Rep. Karl Rhoads, Judiciary Committee chairman, recalls. “But as soon as your story went out, the next day I got a call from somebody who refused to identify themselves who said don’t even think about investigating this.”
KHON2 asked how did he respond. “I said, well, I’m going to investigate this. I’m not out to get anybody but I want to know what’s going on because, on the surface, it’s an appalling violation of labor rights.”
National coverage in an Associated Press story has helped responses gel into momentum for stakeholders to dig in to the extent of the problem, what can change and how.
“There’s no question that it’s happening,” Rhoads said. “The question is what the percentage is. That’s very difficult to determine because most of these guys are foreigners. They don’t speak English.”
But all of them have to get a state fishing license, and some advocates are asking whether that can be either leverage on the companies, or an avenue for access to the individuals themselves.
“The state could get at the problem, but indirectly, through the fishing license process,” Rhoads said, “and I think we probably need to look at that harder at this point.”
The DLNR administers the license for about 700 longliner crews through its Division of Aquatic Resources, which tracks who is fishing and how much they’re catching.
“The license has nothing to do with labor practices or some of the issues of concern here,” said Dr. Bruce Anderson, administrator for the DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources. “The fact the individual is underpaid or is not working in appropriate conditions is not something we can address is our permitting process.”
The crew’s foreign passports and American landing permits qualify them for a state license.
“In fact, I think we’d probably be sued if we didn’t give them a license if they met the requirements,” Anderson said.
The DLNR has allowed captains to come get the license on behalf of the crew since the laborers don’t have a visa to make the journey in themselves. It’s here that the department says they may be able to take some different steps.
“It’s possible we can go out to the boats, and that might provide an opportunity to communicate with the crew,” Anderson said. “I have no question that what we are doing is legally appropriate, but it may not be the best thing to do, and if we can figure out ways to change what we’re doing now to address (this).”
Anderson says the DLNR is open to working with others who can address the labor side of the concerns, as well as to explore ways to be a conduit for other agencies or part of a potential change.
“We’re certainly willing to reevaluate our processes,” he said. “In fact, we’re doing that now, and if we can somehow assist in resolving this problem, we’d be glad to do so.
“Frankly, I think this is an issue that needs attention at the federal level, and that’s where lasting changes would be made.”
Low wages are legal due to minimum wage exemptions. Hawaii’s special waiver to have majority-foreign crew doesn’t give them visas, just minimal landing access.
Hawaii’s congressional delegation says they are looking at the matter as well.
The industry is also looking at streamlined standards to enforce itself, serving as a way to help show retailers and wholesalers something akin to a fair-labor certification.
On Friday, Governor Ige weighted in on his concerns over the treatment of fishermen on Hawaii’s longline fishing boats.
He expressed concern that the fishermen may fall into a loophole and don’t get the same labor law protections as most American workers.
“I’ll be talking with the Dept. of Labor and try to see what we can do,” he said. “I don’t believe the state has any jurisdiction, but if there is something that we can work with the federal government on, we certainly would.”