Low pay, inhumane working conditions, and long hours are among the abuses suffered by fishermen working off the shores of Hawaii, according to an investigative report released yesterday by the Associated Press (AP).
The crews, mainly consisting of men without visas from Southeast Asian and Pacific countries, are paid "as little as 70 cents an hour" to catch prized bluefin tuna among other seafood, the six month-long investigation into the state's fishing industry revealed. The fish they caught, however, could be sold for up to $1,000 and marketed as "sustainable seafood produced by Hawaii's hard-working fisherman."
There's no doubt they're hardworking.
As well as enduring 20-hour work days and staying at sea for three weeks at a time, the AP reported that the fishermen were "living in squalor on some boats," often lacking in food and suffering sores from bed bugs. Because many workers were without documentation, they were also unable to leave the boats, even when docked. This meant relying on captains to bring them essentials like underwear.
But what may be the most shocking thing about the AP report is the fact that it's all technically legal.
Investigators reported that the abuse of workers goes unpunished, "due to a federal loophole that allows them to work but exempts them from the most basic labour protections."
Outside of Hawaii, the AP notes that "US citizens must make up 75 percent of the crew on most commercial fishing vessels in America" but after politicians pushed for policies to support Hawaii's fishing industry—which is the fifth largest in the US—boats in Hawaii became exempt from the federal rule.
Not that American seafood consumers would ever know about this. Seafood from Hawaii ends up on high end supermarkets like Whole Foods, as well as on the menu at top restaurants across the US.
When AP investigators questioned the supermarkets and restaurants about the provenance of their seafood, they unsurprisingly sought to distance themselves from any kind of labour abuses. A spokesperson from Whole Foods said that "they had been assured boat crews are well paid with bonuses and health insurance," but added "that the company is also looking into the issue."
But as long as these workers go undocumented and Americans have a taste for poké and sashimi, things look unlikely to change.