U.S action shines spotlight on labour issues in Fijian fishing fleet


    By Cliff White

    The state of labour conditions in the Fijian longliner fleet has come under closer scrutiny following the issuance of a withhold-release order by U.S Customs and Border Protection in August.

    The Hangton No. 112, owned and operated by Suva, Fiji-based Hangton Pacific Co., was hit with the order on 04 August, with the CBP citing the presence of three of the International Labour Organisation’s 11 indicators of forced labour during an investigation of the vessel’s operations: withholding of wages, debt bondage, and retention of identity documents. CBP’s order requires all U.S agencies to detain products harvested by the vessel, effectively prohibiting the company from exporting any seafood caught by the Hangton No. 112 into the United States.

    Hangton Pacific General Manager Jitendra K Mohan said his company has been exporting to the U.S. for more than two decades, and that the order has already had a negative impact.

    “All our customers are concerned and reluctant to trade,” he wrote in an email to SeafoodSource. “The future is bleak unless the matter is resolved quickly.”

    Mohan said he has met with representatives of CBP in order to figure out what the company can do to have the order removed, but has not yet received details of CBP’s investigation.

    “We have had a constructive discussion with CBP,” he said. “During the discussions, we could not get the specifics incidents, but overall have identified some areas we have to get more involved. As it seems, actions and conduct of recruiting agents needs greater scrutiny and monitoring. How crew are treated on return – for example, pay-outs and release of ID documents. Will have to review the agreements with recruiting agents to reflect same and ensure its implementation.”

    Mohan said the crews working aboard his company’s vessels have access to Fijian port officials, who conduct inspections “each and every time” each boat comes into port.” Furthermore, “the Indonesian embassy in Fiji is easily accessible to crew and have intervened if enquired,” Mohan said.

    “Some recruits who are first-timers have terminated their contracts after first fishing trip and their repatriation have been arranged,” he said.

    Over the past year, the U.S government has significantly increased the number of penalties it has issued against fishing companies it believes to have engaged in labour abuse, but previously, its efforts had been focused on the Chinese and Taiwanese fleets. While many vessels in the Fijian fleet are majority- or minority-owned by Chinese firms, Mohan said Hangton Pacific is a “fully Fijian-owned company without any foreign shareholders.”

    Mohan said he’s convinced the CBP acted on a Greenpeace report based on complaints from a single employee who ceased working for Hangton Pacific in 2018.

    “If Greenpeace is involved, then it’s sad, because they never did an honest investigation. It’s very unprofessional [of them] to vilify our company,” Mohan said. “Their irresponsible conduct is going to affect hundreds of jobs and their families – hard to believe they represent human rights.”

    Arifsyah M. Nasution, the oceans campaign lead for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, confirmed to SeafoodSource it was a complaint from a migrant worker who had worked on the Hangton No. 112 that resulted in the vessel’s mention in its 2019 “Seabound” report. The complaint was made through a resignation letter the worker sent to Hangton Pacific via the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union (SBMI), which was then received by Greenpeace.

    “The migrant fisher experienced abusive working and living conditions, discrimination, including threats and intimidation on the vessel Hangton No. 112,” Nasution said. “The migrant fisher also experienced and even is still experiencing the debt-bondage conditions until now. Based on the latest correspondence made by the SBMI team with the migrant fisher by end of July 2021, some of his personal and family important documents of this migrant fisher, such as his family card, education certificate, Indonesian citizen card, including his passport and seamen book, upon arrival back to Indonesia, are still being held by an Indonesian manning/recruitment agency (which recruited the fisher and sent him to work for Hangton Company vessels). He needs to pay some amount of money to be able to take back his documents from the recruitment agency, based in Indonesia.”

    The “Seabound” report found the Hangton No. 112 had an all-Indonesian crew, recruited by an Indonesian agent. “Seabound” and Greenpeace’s 2021 “Forced Labour at Sea” presented sufficient evidence for Greenpeace to accuse the vessel of violating seven of the International Labour Organisation’s 11 forced labour indicators, according to Nasution.

    “The reports exposed the kind of forced labour practices related to the named vessels [that] could indicate the potential problems with the social-labour performance of those mentioned vessels and fishing companies (including along their associated partners in the supply chains),” Nasution said.

    In August, Mohan cited his company’s Marine Stewardship Council certification as evidence of its past good behavior, but that certification has since been suspended, according to MSC Senior PR Manager Jackie Marks. However, Hangton Pacific’s five other longliners remain certified, including the Hangton No. 115, which was also mentioned in the “Seabound” report.

    “The MSC condemns forced and child labour. We were concerned to learn that the Hangton No. 112, which is listed as one of the vessels eligible to catch MSC-certified tuna as part of the Fiji longline tuna fishery, has been issued with a withhold-release order by U.S Customs and Border Protection. We take these reports very seriously,” Marks wrote in an email to SeafoodSource. “Representatives of the certified fishery are investigating the issues raised by U.S Customs and Border Protection and we expect them to act swiftly to address any potential labor violations. The fishery has removed the vessel from its MSC certificate, as of 06 August, while investigations are ongoing, and the updated vessel list is on Track a Fishery. In line with our policy on forced labour, if the vessel owners are prosecuted for forced labor violations, they will be banned from catching MSC-certified seafood for two years.”

    In its written response to questions from SeafoodSource, Greenpeace referred to a 2019 statement it issued along with a dozen other labor-focused NGOs, warning about a lack of efficacy in MSC’s social and labor-screening process.

    “We are deeply concerned that the Marine Stewardship Council’s new chain of custody certification will not be effective in identifying, preventing, or protecting seafood workers from labour rights violations. Moreover, the new requirements for assessing risk and preventing child labour and forced labour will not provide buyers and retailers with the assurance that child labour and forced labour are not present in their supply chains,” they wrote. “While we understand that this was MSC’s first step in an effort to address labour abuse in seafood supply chains, we are deeply disappointed by the standard put forward. Indeed, a low-bar approach such as this one is a missed opportunity and a poor model for other sustainability programmes seeking to address the rights and well-being of seafood workers.”

    Recently, MSC has ramped up its social and labour standards for certification, but the organisation still primarily relies on companies and fishing organisations to conduct self-assessments on the conditions in their fleets, Marks said.

    “The MSC is supporting urgent international efforts to address human rights issues at sea. Since 2014, we have had a clear policy excluding organisations recently convicted for forced labour violations from our programme. In 2018, we introduced new requirements for fishing vessels to report on measures in place to address the risk of forced and child labour at sea. And in 2019, we introduced social auditing requirements for supply chain companies which are certified to the MSC chain of custody standard. As an environmental standard-setter, we continue to work with others engaged in developing measures to address human- and labour-rights issues within the seafood industry.”

    In the Fiji Fishing Industry Association’s self-assessed labour declaration, filed in 2019, it acknowledged there are no representative groups for fishers or migrants in Fiji, but said labour-support services for migrant fishermen were provided by the Pacific Dialogue, an NGO that works to “create awareness to seafarers on national and foreign fishing vessels of their rights and to address the undetected or issues that no one seems to want to handle that usually happen out at sea, especially the high seas.”

    The fishing association said Fiji’s general labour code, the Employment Relations Act, gives employees onboard Fijian vessels the right to report personal grievances against their employers to the Fiji Ministry of Employment, Productivity, and Industrial Relations (MEPIR).

    “With regards to forced labor, all employees have easy access to the MEPIR … whereby they can lodge their grievances and thereafter the labor inspectors will visit the company to verify the grievances and check all the labour-related company books,” the association said in its declaration.

    According to the association, in Fiji, maritime labour laws are enforced via two primary mechanisms: when a complaint is filed and via unannounced inspections. The association did not say if or how often it has faced any investigation into its labour practices.

    The association acknowledged its members maintain a general practice of holding onto its fishermens’ personal identification documents “for safety reasons – to avoid them getting stolen or lost due to negligence.”

    “Safe-keeping by the employer is on a voluntary basis. In the meantime, other identification cards like that of port access or superannuation/tax are usually carried around by each employee for ease of identification when accessing certain government or commercial services. If an employer unreasonably withheld ID documents, a complaint could be made to MEPIR, the Maritime Safety Authority of Fiji, the Department of Immigration, or the Fiji Police,” the association wrote.

    Savenaca Kadavi, a director of Fiji’s Big City Marine Consultancy company and a retired merchant marine captain, told SeafoodSource in an email he is convinced, based on his own experience as former fishermen on Fijian-flagged longliners and his current, ongoing work in Fiji’s maritime industry, that labour abuses are common and widespread in the country’s commercial fishing fleet.

    “I am always keeping in touch with the longline fishing industry, especially the crews, and have a fair idea about what crews go through. I also support a group of volunteers that advocates support for fishing-vessel crewmembers,” he wrote in an email. “Basically, foreign and local fishing vessels abuse the crews by hiring uncertified men, [not issuing] contracts, and paying FJD$0.90 [USD$ 0.43] per hour or FJD$20.00 [USD $9.53) for 18 hours of work.”

    Furthermore, Kadavi said fishing vessels are rarely – if ever – inspected by Fijian officials, and said the Pacific Dialogue is no longer in operation. Nor is it easy for them to lodge a complaint if they are mistreated, Kadavi said.

    “Crewmen (local and foreign) do not have easy access to the MEPIR [office], which is situated at least two kilometers from the wharves. Crew do not know where it is, have no time to visit, maybe would need to make appointments, do not have the bus fare, and so on. Generally these crew are undereducated, and shy,” Kadavi said. “It is very rare for a crewman (even a local, never a foreign) to lodge a complaint – because of the above and also because they do not have contracts, which are asked for by the labour officers; The companies don’t give contracts.”

    Kadavi alleged an absence of support from local authorities in Fiji to address labour issues in the fishing fleet, and a lack of enforcement of existing labour regulations.

    “There is a lot of noncompliance here that is ill-treating our seafarers,” he wrote.

    Marks declined to answer questions from SeafoodSource about whether MSC has ever been contacted by any third-parties regarding their concerns about Hangton Pacific, and specifically, its labour practices, or whether MSC has any concerns about labour violations in the rest of the MSC-certified Fijian fleet.

    “Anyone wishing to report a concern relating to labour violations on a fishing fleet is encouraged to report them to the relevant government authority for further investigation,” she wrote. “Any entities prosecuted for forced labour violations will be banned from catching MSC-certified seafood for two years”