The United 6 fishermen hold up cardboard signs with slogans such as, “Fight for Overseas Filipino Workers and their Families” at the Japanese Baptist Church on Jan. 28, 2024 • Photo by Rosie Dino

Migrant seafarer Mickel Mendez is buried in debt after the consecutive hospitalizations of both his sister and mother-in-law back in the Philippines. After his wages were allegedly withheld while he and 23 other fishermen remained trapped on U.S. vessels about 20 miles off the Washington coast, he was unable to send money home in late 2023. 

Though the Mendez family managed to obtain a loan for the first hospitalization, they couldn’t afford the second, resulting in his mother-in-law’s eventual death. They also procured a loan for Mendez’ wife and children to travel from their home in Manila, Philippines to visit their grandmother in a different province before she died. 

“I believed that leaving and working outside of the country would make our lives better. We are deeply hurt by what happened,” said Mendez during a community forum organized by BAYAN Seattle and Migrante Seattle at the Japanese Baptist Church on January 28. 

“What happened to my family — us going into debt, the death of my mother-in-law — all of this should never happen to future generations,” he told the crowd. “Agencies like McAdam’s and Pescadores should answer for their misdoings.” 

Mendez’ condemnation is not isolated. He is joined by multiple similar charges leveled against U.S commercial fishing company McAdam’s Fish, LLC, and Pescadores International, a third party Philippines-based recruiting agency that is licensed and authorized by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) to hire crews for international maritime labor. 

Mickel Mendez, now buried in debt, shares his family’s story at the community forum • Photo by Rosie Dino

The fishermen speak out

Mendez is a member of the United 6, a group of six Filipino fishermen who claim that McAdam’s abandoned them and 18 other Filipino nationals in uninhabitable conditions off the shore of Westport, Washington from September to December 2023. The seafarers say the company did not adequately communicate with them during this period, withheld their earned wages, and violated 6-month and 1-year POEA-approved contracts. The seasonal fishing fleet previously caught albacore tuna along the Pacific coast from May to August.  

“In the contract, they were told they would get $500 a month, plus an advance or an allowance, which was only partially paid,” said Jill Mangaliman of BAYAN Seattle, an alliance of progressive Filipino organizations, in an interview with the International Examiner. “When they got on the boat, they changed the rules verbally to a percentage-based system, but even so, they didn’t receive payment until later when we were applying pressure.”

Now in temporary housing, the six were allowed to disembark on humanitarian parole with “continued presence” status. According to BAYAN Seattle, the workers received a portion of their allowances in mid-February 2024 from Pescadores. They were each owed about $6,000. 

However, said Mangaliman, while still confined to their vessels, they were paid insufficiently and deducted for fuel, food, and fishing equipment, then instructed to remain on board while all but one captain departed upon reaching Westport. The reason? The seafarers did not have U.S. visas, only ones for Canada and Mexico where they traveled through to the U.S. They were warned that to leave meant risking a $5,000 fine and detainment by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“I will simply share what I feel inside having been forced to leave and go to another country since my husband cannot anymore send support,” wrote Jenlyn Docuyan, wife of United 6 member Albert Docuyan, in a statement. The couple’s children stopped attending school when Albert Docuyan could no longer send money home. 

Jenlyn Docuyan managed to obtain caregiver work abroad so their children could resume school, but now the family is separated. “It was a great blessing that I was immediately accepted to work abroad,” she wrote. “I am now the one supporting our children.” 

Photographs of the inside of McAdam’s Fish vessel Vicki K • Photos by Jill Mangaliman
Albert Docuyan of the United 6 shares the impact of his stolen wages on his family, including separation from children and his wife who was forced to work overseas to offset the costs • Photo by Rosie Dino

In November 2023, United 6 member Norberto Cabrela similarly informed his employers that he planned to return home to the Philippines to support his pregnant wife, Aileen, whose due date was fast approaching. But after navigating a maze of bureaucracy, he was barred from leaving. On December 12, his wife went into labor, and doctors performed an emergency cesarean section after discovering the baby’s umbilical cord wrapped around its neck twice. Both mother and child are fine, but the expensive medical bill meant they could not be released from the hospital.

The ₱100,000 charge ($1,776 U.S. dollars) forced Cabrela to pawn the title to the land containing their home. 

Whenever the men asked about their pay, they were instructed to “talk to Pescadores,” Mendez told the IE. “And then when we asked them, Pescadores would say, ‘talk to McAdam’s.’”

Mabuhay “Long Live,” United 6!

Now the six seafarers, with support from BAYAN Seattle, are spearheading the Justice for the United 6 campaign. They demand that both McAdam’s and Pescadores fully compensate all labor performed by the fishermen; that both agencies are investigated to end their “outright deceitful hiring and illegal work practices;” that all of the fishermen be provided with proper documentation to work and finance their families or support with repatriation to the Philippines; and that future fish industry workers be better protected. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — which is leading an investigation along with the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S Coast Guard — searched McAdam’s ships on Dec. 27, 2023. The results have not yet been made public.  

Marx Rivera from Migrante Seattle talks about the Justice for United 6 campaign while posters and organization flags decorate the hall of the church • Photo by Benneth Sison
United 6 perform “Musika ang Bahay” by Filipino martial law-era band Asin • Photo by Rosie Dino

McAdam’s Fish owner Rob McAdam initially agreed to be interviewed for this article in late February, but canceled days later, saying his company was not “doing interviews at this time.” He sent a statement instead, dated Feb. 14, 2024, which denies all allegations put forward by the United 6.

“Six crewmembers left our ships with DHS agents at that time,” reads McAdam’s statement. “One of the crewman [sic] in the departing group had worked with us for six successive seasons. 18 crew members chose not to go with the agents, and have since returned to the Philippines. Most if not all of the 18 will be returning to Westport in March for the upcoming season.”

His statement also suggests that the United 6 departed in hopes of securing U.S. residency. 

The fishermen’s stories would likely not be publicized if it weren’t for a family connection to Filipino organizers with the anti-imperialist organization GABRIELA Seattle. Starting in October 2023, Cabrela’s aunt would drive out to the coast every other weekend to visit him on the boats before suspecting anything was wrong. Migrants from other ships would gather on one boat to cook seafood and party together. In late November, things changed when the workers said they felt stranded, and were no longer allowed to leave their boats.

“After we unloaded our fish, our breakdown came out, I was negative. That means I didn’t make any money,” United 6 member Reyner Dagalea told the IE. “Then, in November, I stayed alone on the boat until the day that DHS took us from the boat. I was so sad and lonely.”

A fishing fleet in Westport, Washington in 2019 • Photo by Jim Culp, Creative Commons

Organizers soon alerted the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a global cadre of transport workers unions, who then reported McAdam’s fishing vessels — the United 6 manned Charlotte M, Svetlana M, Natalia Victoria, and Dayna S — as abandoned to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Abandoned status indicates that a shipowner has failed to fulfill fundamental obligations to a seafarer relating to the provision of basic necessities, timely repatriation, or outstanding remuneration. 

Boats with U.S. flags are rarely, if ever reported to the ILO, said Mangaliman.

“You can’t be the beneficiary of slave labor and excuse yourself by whatever corporate structure you have,” said Cyrus Donato, a Puget Sound area inspector for the ITF. He visited the ships on December 31, days after the DHS raid, under the impression that this was just a pay dispute case. 

Donato found that the workers were making around $100 a month, but should have been making at least $725 a month, plus overtime. Additionally, Pescadores was not contributing to any kind of Social Security System, PhilHealth, or Pag-IBIG Fund — statutory programs that provide financial security and healthcare to some 1.96 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) — as stipulated in the POEA contracts. Receipts showed that money was being deducted from the workers’ pay, but with no employer contribution, said Mangaliman.

“I went out there and was like, ‘These guys aren’t getting paid anything. That’s a problem,’” said Donato to the IE. “They weren’t giving them wage accounting, they weren’t maintaining any work and rest hours, any overtime records, which are all required in their contracts.”

ITF inspector Cyrus Donato and Migrante Seattle organizer Justin Adsuara on January 28 • Photo by Rosie Dino

Labor exploitation and the global fishing industry

Before they sought work abroad, some of the United 6 worked as fishermen in the Philippines, while others were farmers, construction workers, or jeepney drivers, said youth organizer Mika Magbanua during the forum. Magbanua noted that in December 2023, jeepney drivers in the Philippines, fearing job loss and financial insecurity, went on strike to protest the government’s plan to phase out jeepneys, a popular mode of Philippine public transportation.

“We really see that the conditions in the Philippines do not provide a dignified life for regular workers,” said Magbunua. “They really prioritize the rich or those who have access to education. That’s what pushes people out to find other jobs overseas.”

On January 8, McAdam’s Fish sent home the remaining 18 seafarers who did not disembark with DHS agents in Westport, a move which Mangaliman suspected would not have occurred had the United 6 stayed quiet. Donato also called the order to send home these seafarers a removal of “a body of evidence” that was essentially facilitated by the U.S. government, since the fishermen did not have U.S visas and would’ve needed to grant McAdam’s permission to do so.

Those 18 chose not to go with the six because they feared how it might impact their future employment prospects, said Donato. All communication between the United 6 and the 18 who returned has since stopped, Dagalea informed the forum in January. 

“When we were ready to get off the boats, Pescadores said that if we go, they’re gonna sue us and file a case until we have nothing. Also, McAdam’s said that they’re gonna make us blacklisted here in the U.S.,” said Albert Docuyan to the IE. “I felt a little bit scared because we didn’t know… what’s their plan? Where’s their mind? They are businessmen, we are ordinary.”

Community members cheer in support of the United 6 • Photo by Rosie Dino
United 6 speak on a panel about their trafficking experience with McAdam’s Fish • Photo by Rosie Dino

When GABRIELA Seattle organizers returned to investigate the boats with Donato in December, McAdam’s staff tried to block them from speaking with the fishermen, according to both Donato and Mangaliman. 

“McAdam’s even called [Donato] and reiterated that if we continued to look into things, the guys will get blacklisted and never work again,” said Mangaliman. “He also threatened us with, ‘I’m gonna call the police on you to get off my boats.’ And we were saying that the fishermen actually had invited us onto the boats and that they had a right to talk to people, share their conditions.”

The United 6 campaign allegations highlight a structural issue relating to the exploitation of foreign fishermen, said Donato — beginning with the question of how seafarers on U.S. flagged ships operating out of the U.S. could work without U.S. visas. He explained that the United 6 were flown into Mexico and Canada, then picked up by the fleet without disembarking. Two came through Mexico, which doesn’t have strict requirements, and four had Canadian WX-1 visas. “This U.S. fishing fleet was using Canada as part of their labor supply chain,” he said. 

A 2019 study conducted by researchers at the Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute uncovered systemic vulnerabilities to forced labor facing foreign workers in the Hawaiian longline fishing industry. It found that many foreign fishermen work legally, but without legal status, which means the fear of deportation takes away their bargaining power and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation with no legal protections. The same thing is happening here, said Donato. 

“It’s like they’re playing a game where the floor is lava,” Donato said. “[The fishermen] physically cannot step off the ship. They’re committing a crime by doing so… it’s a built-in impressment mechanism.” 

The local Filipino community and allies gathered listen to the United 6 • Photo by Benneth Sison

The fight continues

One early February morning, the United 6 were making breakfast as they settled into temporary housing in Seattle. The group had just returned from a walk around the area — some respite from a busy couple of months. Two days before, they met with the Philippine Department of Migrant Workers, and before that, shared their plight with supporters at the Japanese Baptist Church. In mid-March, they traveled to Boston, Massachusetts to speak at the Seafood Expo North America. Days later, the six met with the Philippine Consulate General in San Francisco. 

“We are scared for our families and about what happens to us,” said Dagalea, a member of the United 6. “But now we are a little bit confident because there’s a lot of growth and we are still fighting for the truth. We are hoping for a better or good result for us.” 

According to the campaign, the United 6 have still not received their full back wages or benefits, and there is still no clear promise that the fishermen and their families will be protected from retaliation by their former employer. They each received a one-time payment of $530 of AKSYON funding from the Philippines government, intended to provide “legal, medical, financial, and other forms of assistance to Overseas Filipino Workers.”

The organizers say this is not enough, and that the Philippine Department of Migrant Workers is delaying action.

There has been no recourse from the POEA to acknowledge the alleged contract violations. 

“[The United 6 case] is another example of how these labor agencies only exist to pawn our people off to other businesses, for other businesses and countries to profit off of,” said Migrante Seattle organizer Justin Adsuara.

This is the kind of business that is prioritized for development in our country, rather than building up businesses and industries in our own homeland that could meet our own people’s needs and employ them at home. This is a grave injustice.”

Follow the United 6 campaign on social media @justiceforunited6. Organizers have also started a community petition. Other information can be found on the campaign’s Linktree

There has been no recourse from the POEA to acknowledge the alleged contract violations • Photo by Rosie Dino
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