Sunday, 30 March 2014

New Zealand's commercial fishing 'slavery' shames the nation

New Zealand ranks high in the decency stakes, especially for minimal corruption, transparency and the rule of law upholding human rights, but in one area it is shamefully deficient - the treatment of overseas fishing crews on foreign-flagged vessels operating in its territorial fishing grounds and partnered with some of the country's biggest fishing corporations. Ongoing for years, the scandal is so huge that a US State Department report released in 2012 scathingly labelled it "21st century slavery." It cited conditions of forced labour, including debt bondage, imposition of significant debts, physical violence, mental abuse and excessive working hours on board.

To be fair to the New Zealand government, it has proposed legislation to implement recommendations, including the requirement that all foreign fishing vessels working in the country's waters must be new Zealand flagged by 2016, but it is yet to be passed and now seems unlikely to be until after the next election because it has been pushed back to number 27 on the Parliamentary Bills list. Such foot-dragging "is outrageous," said Joe Fleetwood, secretary of the Maritime Union of New Zealand. "The New Zealand government is missing in action when it comes to protecting the rights and welfare of fishers in our region," he adds.

The accusation of tardiness is valid. It is almost 10 years since the government concluded a ministerial enquiry into the use of foreign charter vessels after national and international accusations of slave labour in New Zealand waters. The risks of further procrastination, moreover, pose significant threats to the New Zealand economy, not to mention the sullying of the country's reputation abroad. Various international condemnatory campaigns spurred and spooked big foreign fish buyers like America to pressure the land-based fishing industry to clean up its act. New Zealand's sea food exports consistently rank as the country's fourth or fifth biggest export earner, valuing the harvest at between NZ$1.5 billion to $1.2 billion a year, of which the aquaculture industry contributed about $200 million, so there is much at stake.

To ratchet up the pressure and seek justice for the exploited foreign crews, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) president, Paddy Crumlin, recently met with key stakeholders in Auckland about its ongoing campaign to secure NZ$ 30 million in unpaid wages for fishers in New Zealand's waters through recourse to the the courts. He said it was imperative that the fishing workers get better wages and conditions in an industry where 24,000 are killed globally every year. "We are trying to break apart the industrial model upon which commercial fishing is built, because it is akin to modern day slavery," he said.

That model may be fairly said to reflect the dark side of globalisation, not that globalisation per se has been generally bad, far from it. New Zealand's biggest fishing companies engage in joint ventures which exploit quotas under the country's fishing regime by bringing in foreign chartered vessels with overseas crews. Given that crews wages, when paid, on often poorly maintained and unsafe trawlers, are very cheap, the country's fish processors profit enormously and take the view that what goes on a few miles over the seas' horizons  is of little concern to them. It is an 'out-of-sight, out-of-mind' attitude from the industry and regulators because overseas crews are not New Zealand citizens and not in a position to advocate for their own interests, and their rights are overlooked. When conditions become so bad on board and unpaid wages so delayed many foreign crews abscond in the country's ports, only to be humiliated by notices of $1,000 rewards for their capture, somewhat reminiscent of the 19th century American reward notices for capture of runaway slaves.

The problem of fishery slavery is not confined to New Zealand's waters by any means. Greed, theft and oppression of many kinds extend back to the abused crews' homelands, where usually they are hired by local, disreputable employment agencies. The problem is endemic throughout south-east Asian waters and many of the abuses suffered by fishers around New Zealand waters are reflected on board some of Britain's and Ireland's trawlers of terror* which use migrant crews, particularly from the Philippines.

The damage to New Zealand's reputation is hard to quantify, said Joe Fleetwood. "The blame must be put at the feet of the cowboy operators in the industry and successive governments who soft-pedalled the issue and only took belated action when forced to, the lesson being they can't afford to sweep these dirty issues under the carpet any more."

The New Zealand government would be foolish to delay any longer to rectify a festering sore under its nose that would shame any country trying to maintain its hitherto high regard for human rights.

*Google my blogs: 
Britain's trawler fishing shame intensifies
Ireland's shameful role in migrant fishermen exposed

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