Indonesia fishermen who fled ‘slavery’ when boat docked in San Francisco sue vessel’s owner

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 12:36pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2016, 9:21pm

Two Indonesian fishermen who say they escaped slavery aboard a Honolulu-based tuna and swordfish vessel when it docked at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf are suing the boat’s owner for tricking them into accepting dangerous jobs they say they weren’t allowed to leave.

Attorneys for Abdul Fatah and Sorihin, who uses one name, say in a lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday that they were recruited in Indonesia seven years ago to work in Hawaii’s commercial fishing fleet without realising they would never be allowed onshore. They have since been issued visas for victims of human trafficking and are living in the San Francisco area.

The lawsuit alleges that San Jose, California, resident Thoai Nguyen, owner and captain of the Sea Queen II, forced Sorihin and Fatah to work up to 20-hour shifts, denied them medical treatment and demanded thousands of dollars if they wanted to leave before their contracts expired. Nguyen did not return calls seeking comment.

The lawsuit seeks payment for debts the men incurred, fees they paid and compensation promised without specifying a dollar amount, and asks for unspecified damages for “mental anguish and pain.”

“I want to be compensated because of the suffering I felt on the boat and all the suffering I have endured after I got off the boat,” Sorihin said Thursday through a translator at his lawyer’s San Francisco office. “And I hope no one will suffer what I have suffered.”

The lawsuit comes two weeks after an Associated Press investigation found around 140 fishing boats based in Honolulu, including Sea Queen II, were crewed by hundreds of men from impoverished Southeast Asia and Pacific Island nations. The seafood is sold at markets and upscale restaurants across the US. A legal loophole allows them to work without visas as long as they don’t set foot on shore. The system is facilitated by the US Coast Guard, as well as Customs and Border Protection who require boat owners to hold workers’ passports.

Some men are paid as little as US70 cents an hour. Others had to use buckets instead of toilets, suffered running sores from bed bugs or sometimes lacked sufficient food.

In response, the Hawaii Longline Association representing fishing boat owners has created a universal crew contract that will be required on any boat wanting to sell fish in the state’s seafood auction starting October 1. The group says it deplores human trafficking, and that the contract will protect workers.

But the contracts let owners continue to set their own minimum salaries, allow workers to spend the entire year at sea, and reiterate that they must remain on board with passports held by owners.

Cornell University law professor Stephen Yale-Loehr said the new contract “reinforces the current deplorable situation by emphasising that the crew members have no real rights.”

“Congress should repeal the loophole that exempts U.S. fishing captains from having to provide basic labor protections to their crew,” he said.

Here’s what Sorihin and Fatah say happened to them.

They signed contracts promising US$350 a month plus bonuses. They borrowed about US$300 to pay an agent in Jakarta. They flew from Jakarta to Singapore, then Sydney, on to Fiji and Pago Pago, American Samoa.

Because docking is inconvenient and potentially costly, the fishermen had to swim from one boat to another before sailing to Honolulu to begin fishing.

They worked from 6am to 6pm without a food break. Then, after a meal and a few hours’ rest, they’d fish some more.

Both men asked to see a doctor at various times but were told there was no health insurance.

“I knew if I stayed on that boat I was going to die,” said Sorihin in an interview.

Although there was a toilet on board, they had to go to the bathroom in plastic buckets and plastic baggies on deck. And the money, a few hundred dollars a month, just wasn’t worth it.

They asked to go home, but were told they would have to reimburse the captain the US$6,000 he spent to bring them there.

Finally, they decided to run. It was before dawn, six years ago, when the skipper was gone and drunken crewmembers slept. Sorihin and Fatah sneaked into a private room and grabbed their passports. They dashed through San Francisco’s historic waterfront and eventually boarded a southbound train toward San Jose, where they sought help from an Indonesian man they knew of.

“I didn’t think I’d have another chance to survive at sea,” said Fatah. “I was really afraid.”