US blocks imports from Fiji-based vessel accused of enslaving its crew

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The US has blocked imports in American ports from a Fiji-based tuna fishing vessel that is accused of enslaving crew members.

On Wednesday, Customs and Border Protection issued an order to halt shipments from the Hangton No 112, a longliner operated by a Chinese national. The order came after the agency determined there was credible evidence that the vessel’s crew was operating under forced labor conditions.

“Foreign fishing vessels like the Hangton No 112 continue to lure vulnerable migrant workers into forced labor situations so that they can sell seafood below market value, which threatens the livelihoods of American fishermen,” said Troy Miller, CBP acting commissioner. “CBP will continue to stand up against these vessels’ abusive labor practices by preventing the introduction of their unethically-harvested seafood into the US market.”

The CBP identified at least three of the International Labour Organization’s 11 indicators of forced labor, including withholding of wages, debt bondage and retention of identity documents.

Despite industry efforts to tackle forced labor onboard fishing vessels, the Hangton No 112 has imported around $40m in tuna and other fish into the US market, according to Ana Hinojosa, the CPB directorate that investigates allegations of forced labor. The identities of importers who received the shipments have not been disclosed.

The 34-meter vessel, which operates under the flag of Fiji, was built in 2017 and consists of thirteen crew members. In a December 2019 investigation by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union, the vessel was found to have seven indicators of the ILO’s forced labor.

The report cited that a representative from Hangton “claimed that the said vessel is not a distant water fishing vessel and that its Indonesian crew are recruited by an Indonesian agent”. The representative also denied accusations of salary deductions and retention of identity documents.

Wednesday’s announcement comes as part of a series of orders targeting Asian fishing vessels amid reports of forced labor. In May, the CBP blocked imports of seafood from the entire fleet of Dalian Ocean Fishing, a Chinese company. Agency officials cited that crew members were forced to work in slave-like conditions which resulted in the deaths of several Indonesian fishermen in 2020.

Current estimates from the ILO reveal that over 25 million workers suffer under conditions of forced labor globally, including those in the distant water fishing industry who often hail from south-east Asia.

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