Fishermen claim human trafficking, horrific conditions on American boat based in San Francisco, Honolulu

Two men from Indonesia filed a federal lawsuit here today alleging that they were induced to pay high recruitment fees to work for a U.S.-based fishing vessel, whose captain mistreated them, isolated them at sea for months at a time, and didn’t pay them according to the terms of their employment contract — much less the minimum wage.

As the Associated Press reported this month, many of about 140 commercial fishing boats based in Hawaii operate as though they’re exempt from most basic labor laws. Some of the workers make as little as 70 cents per hour, the AP reported.

Sorihin (who uses one name) and Abdul Fatah — represented by Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC; Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center; and attorney Yenny Teng-Lee — claim in their complaint that they were promised good pay as tuna fishermen, but that the captain they worked for did not pay according to their contract and forced them to keep working nonetheless.

Agnieszka Fryszman, a partner with Cohen Milstein in Washington, D.C., who is nationally recognized for her work in human trafficking, slave labor, and other violations of international law, notes that this is the first lawsuit brought under the U.S. Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act by survivors in the U.S. fishing industry. She said the plaintiffs “are standing up for not only their own human rights but the rights of thousands of possible victims ensnared by human trafficking in the fishing industry.”

“Being transferred in the middle of the Pacific Ocean onto a fishing boat against your will and trapped into forced labor sounds like another century’s fiction,” says Fryszman. “But it was the horrific reality for our clients, and it continues to be the reality for thousands of others who are victims of human trafficking.”

In addition to being isolated and dramatically underpaid, according to the complaint, the men, like many others in the fleet that the AP reported on, were made to perform hazardous work nearly around the clock without adequate gear.

“I want justice against the inhuman treatment that I suffered so that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else,” says Fatah.

“No one should go through what I went through,” says Sorihin.

The International Labor Organization has found that fishing operations are joining many other industries in increasingly recruiting migrants from developing countries to cut costs. Advocates say these workers are especially vulnerable to coercion and exploitation because they often do not speak English, and they fear retaliation even if they know their rights.

“Our clients’ allegations show how those involved in trafficking make money through exploiting vulnerable people seeking better opportunities in their home countries,” says Mana Barari, an attorney with LAS-ELC. “Shedding light on these practices is especially important in the fishing industry, where workers are literally trapped at sea and forced to continue working under conditions they never agreed to.”

“I hope Sorihin and Abdul’s seeking justice against people whom they believe wronged them will inspire many Indonesians in the U.S. who suffer injustice to reach out for help,” says Teng-Lee, who is active in the Indonesian-American community in the Bay Area.

Filed today, the case is Sorihin and Abdul Fatah v. Thoai Van Nguyen dba Sea Queen II, Case No. 16-5422, in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.


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