Indonesian Fishermen Settle Labor-Trafficking Case
by Helen Christophi, Court House News, January 3, 2018
SAN FRANCISCO – Two Indonesian fishermen settled their lawsuit Wednesday against an American fishing boat captain whom they say enslaved them on his boat for eight months before they escaped in San Francisco.
Under the settlement, the owner and captain of the Sea Queen II, Thoai Van Nguyen, must give fishermen flyers enumerating their rights under U.S. law and employment contracts in their own languages. The plaintiffs were also awarded a confidential settlement award, according to a statement by their attorneys.
“This settlement should be a wake-up call to the commercial fishing industry,” Agnieszka Fryszman, an attorney at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll who represented the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “There’s simply no excuse for turning a blind eye to human trafficking, and we look forward to continuing our efforts to hold others in the industry accountable.”
Sorihin, who uses one name, is one of two Indonesian fisherman who escaped slavery aboard a U.S.-flagged tuna and swordfish vessel when it docked at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. In this Sept. 22, 2016, photo, he is pictured at the offices of the Legal Aid Society in San Francisco, looking out toward Montgomery Street. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
Sorihin, who uses only one name, and Abdul Fatah sued Nguyen in San Francisco federal court in September 2016, claiming they were promised good jobs in the American commercial fishing industry. Instead, the men said, they were taken to sea from Jakarta, Indonesia, in an American vessel and transferred against their will to the Sea Queen II in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Onboard the Sea Queen, Nguyen confiscated the men’s passports, forced them to work 20 hours a day in the waters around Hawaii and California for less than they were promised, abused and humiliated them, denied them medical care for injuries sustained on the job and demanded thousands of dollars if they wanted to leave the ship before their two-year contracts expired, the men said.
They fled the boat after eight months while the Sea Queen was docked in San Francisco, grabbing their confiscated passports and sneaking away after Nguyen left to visit his home in nearby San Jose, according to the lawsuit.
“No one should have to go through what I went through,” Sorihin said in a statement Wednesday. “That is why I had to bring this case. I feel more at peace now.”
Under the settlement, Nguyen must guarantee his fishermen access to their passports, medical care for their injuries, minimum rest hours, free protective clothing and the right to end their contract early without a penalty. Nguyen has agreed to use only reputable labor brokers, and to provide his men with contact information for help lines and legal assistance for those whose rights are violated.
“The basic protections secured in this agreement lays the groundwork for minimum labor standards in the commercial fishing industry,” Carole Vigne, an attorney at Legal Aid at Work who also represented the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “We hope it becomes a model for all captains who want to do right by their immigrant crew.”
Sorihin, a foreign fisherman who was granted a U.S. visa as a victim of human trafficking in San Francisco, is pictured in this April 25, 2016, photo showing a finger he injured while fishing aboard a U.S.-flagged fishing boat in the Pacific. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
Sorihin and Fatah sued for unspecified damages for fees they paid and wages they were promised, mental anguish, pain and suffering, and the loss of educational and business opportunities. The case was the first brought under the U.S. Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act, according to their lawyers.
The International Organization for Migration, a Geneva, Switzerland-based organization that works with governments and migrants on migration issues, says labor trafficking has become entrenched in Indonesia’s fishing industry. In 2015, hundreds of fishers trafficked from abroad to work in Indonesia were rescued from unregulated fishing vessels around Indonesia’s Benjina and Ambon islands, according to the organization.
Parties including the U.S. Department of State have also accused Thai fishing vessels of enslaving fishermen.
Lynn Krieger of Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith represented Nguyen.