A tuna fishing boat based in the Pacific island nation of Fiji that has been accused of effectively enslaving its crew was barred from importing seafood into the United States on Wednesday, part of a growing effort to prevent goods produced with forced labor from entering the country.
After determining that there was credible evidence that the crew was subjected to conditions defined as forced labor under international standards, US Customs and Border Protection issued an order prohibiting any shipments in American ports from the Hangton No. 112, a longliner operated by a Chinese national. It is the latest in a series of such orders targeting Asian fishing vessels, following reports that crews made up primarily of vulnerable migrant workers from poorer countries are subjected to horrific conditions by operators traveling farther at sea and for longer periods of time as fish populations worldwide decline.
“Foreign fishing vessels like the Hangton No. 112 continue to entice vulnerable migrant workers into forced labor situations in order to sell seafood below market value, endangering the livelihoods of American fishermen,” CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller said in a statement released ahead of the order’s announcement. “CBP will continue to oppose these vessels’ abusive labor practices by preventing the importation of their unethically harvested seafood into the United States market.”
Despite industry efforts to address the issue, records show that about $40 million in tuna and other fish from the Hangton No. 112 have been imported into the US market in recent years, according to Ana Hinojosa, the CBP directorate that investigates allegations of forced labor. The importers who received the shipments are not publicly identified by the agency. According to CBP, its investigation discovered evidence that the crew of the Hangton 112 had their wages improperly withheld, their identity documents were taken, and they were held in “debt bondage,” which typically involves charging workers an excessive amount in advance for travel and other expenses and holding them until they worked to pay it off.
Hinojoso said the agency discovered additional conditions that were “difficult to read,” despite the fact that fishing is a notoriously difficult and dangerous industry. “I wouldn’t call it a fun job, but certain human rights protections are expected in any kind of working environment.”
In May, the United States banned seafood imports from a Chinese company with more than 30 ships, alleging that crew members were forced to work in slave-like conditions, resulting in the deaths of several Indonesian fishermen last year. Individual vessels from Taiwan and elsewhere have also been targeted by CBP.
According to online records, the 102-foot (34-meter) Hangton No. 112 has a crew of about a dozen people. Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union cited the boat in a December 2019 investigative report that documented abusive conditions in the Pacific fishing fleet. At the time, the operator denied the allegations.
According to advocates such as Greenpeace, migrant workers, particularly those from the Philippines and Indonesia, are especially vulnerable to abusive labor conditions, with brokers frequently taking a cut of their wages and ship operators and companies forcing them to work extreme hours and endure brutal treatment in one of the most dangerous occupations, with no recourse and no way to escape while at sea.
Unregulated fishing has received increased attention in recent years, not only for the abusive treatment of workers, but also for the harm it causes to the environment, economies around the world, and food supply.
An investigation into the fishing industry, which received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, resulted in the abolition of over 2,000 slaves and the tracking of seafood caught by slaves to supermarkets and pet food providers across the United States.