New Zealand Moves to Compensate Slave-Like Fishermen

Published Mar 11, 2018 9:17 PM by The Maritime Executive

New Zealand lawyer Karen Harding has secured the first stage of review of existing New Zealand legislation to improve the working conditions of fishermen. 

In particular, the move has given a lifeline to a group of Indonesian fishermen seeking compensation against their former South Korean employers for unpaid wages and slave-like treatment. The men reportedly worked up to 24 hour shifts with few breaks. They were forced to live in cockroach-riddled spaces, sleep in wet bedding and eat flea-ridden food, reports Radio New Zealand.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the men can claim proceeds from the sale of vessels seized by the government. The issues of the case required the Supreme Court to consider the relationship between the provisions of two separate pieces of legislation, the Fisheries Act and the Admiralty Act.

Harding has worked on the men's case for several years without payment. “They were promised what were said to be good jobs, to come to New Zealand on work permits to work on these Korean fishing vessels. They came and they got raped, they got abused, they got molested, they had insects in their food, their rooms were full of cockroaches and mice.

"They had to put their houses and paddy fields up to guarantee these fantastic jobs in New Zealand, so if they tried to get off the boats or resign they would have that property forfeited from them and make their families homeless."

Over the last decade, the New Zealand fishing industry has been shaken by a series of high profile allegations of abuse and exploitation of foreign crews working on foreign fishing vessels within New Zealand’s waters. Following a series of non-legislative measures, the Government responded with the Fisheries (Foreign Charter Vessels and Other Matters) Amendment Act which came into force on May 1, 2016. This Act requires any foreign fishing vessel operating in New Zealand waters to reflag as a New Zealand ship, removing their right to fish in New Zealand waters until they do so.

According to the Government, this measure is intended to help identify issues of forced labor earlier and to ensure New Zealand employment law is applied uniformly at sea. In the first reading of the Act, the Government acknowledged that forced labor in the fishing industry has resisted successive Government measures for at least the last two decades. 

Numerous independent organizations have produced data suggesting abuse has become endemic. An analysis by Bloomberg, for example, estimates that approximately 40 percent of squid exported from New Zealand has been caught on a vessel using forced labor, as well as 15 percent of Hoki exports and eight percent of Southern Blue Whiting.

The issues of slavery in New Zealand's fisheries industry has been highlighted though the New Zealand NGO, Slave Free Seas, and the U.K.-based charity Human Rights at Sea.