Not in New Zealand? Labour exploitation on foreign flagged fishing vessels.

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Not in New Zealand? Labour exploitation on foreign flagged fishing vessels.

Posted 16/09/2011 by Dianne Heriot

A Ministerial Inquiry is underway in New Zealand into the use and operation of Foreign Charter Vessels in New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The review has been convened jointly by the Minister for Fisheries and Aquaculture, the Hon Phil Heatley MP, and the Minister for Labour, the Hon Kate Wilkinson MP.  Its principal objective is to ensure that foreign owned and flagged vessels chartered by New Zealand companies: 

  • Protect New Zealand’s international reputation and trade access
  • Maximise the economic return to New Zealand from its  fisheries resources, and
  • Ensure acceptable and equitable New Zealand labour standards are applied on all fishing vessels operating in New Zealand’s fisheries waters within the EEZ.
Commercial fishing in New Zealand is managed by a quota system, with all fishing quota owned by New Zealand companies.  Foreign Charter Vessels are foreign owned and flagged fishing vessels leased by a New Zealand company to fish in New Zealand's EEZ.  There are currently 26 such vessels (and around 2000 foreign crew) operating in New Zealand waters, flagged to the Republic of Korea, Ukraine, Japan and Dominica.  Foreign Charter Vessels account for approximately 40 per cent of the total commercial harvest under the quota management system; in 2009-10, the approximate total export revenue generated by their catch amounted to some NZ$274.6 million.


As a result of serious concerns about employment conditions in the fishing industry, the Department of Labour introduced in 2006 a  Code of Practice on Foreign Fishing Crew.  The Code sets out minimum working and living conditions that need to be met before visas will be granted to foreign crew members; and stipulates that crews must always be paid at least the minimum New Zealand wage.  It also puts in place reporting and inspection requirements, and access to the relevant bodies established to resolve disputes arising under employment agreements.  The Code marked a significant advance on the industrial protections previously available to foreign fishing crew.

However, enforcement remains a concern, with reports continuing to be made of abuse and exploitation in commercial fishing fleets operating in New Zealand waters.  In August 2010, the South Korean vessel Oyang 70 capsized and sank, resulting in the death of six seafarers.  Survivors reported underpayment and serious mistreatment.  The 2011 US State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report noted that, according to a press report and the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on human trafficking, fishermen from Indonesia, Vietnam and elsewhere were allegedly victims of forced labour in New Zealand waters.  Earlier this year, crew walked off the South Korean trawlers the Shin Ji and the Oyang 75 claiming physical and verbal abuse and underpayment.  As a result both the New Zealand Seafood Industry Council and the Maritime Union of New Zealand called for a government inquiry.  Questions about the mistreatment and exploitation of crew were also raised in the New Zealand Parliament.

In August 2011, University of Auckland academics Dr Christina Stringer and Glenn Simmons launched a report documenting the poor conditions, physical and verbal abuse, threats and intimidation experienced by crew on Foreign Charter Vessels. The research alleges that crew on New Zealand flagged vessels earned up to ten times more than the foreign fishing crews interviewed who worked on average 112 hours per week as bonded labour with shifts of up to 53 hours in length -- in clear breach of the Code.
Such reports are not unique to fishers working in New Zealand waters.  Stories alleging exploitation of foreign seafarers in Australian waters have appeared in The Australian and the Courier Mail.  A recent study by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on transnational crime in the fishing industry noted the severity of abuse of fishers subjected to forced labour on board fishing vessels, with Southeast Asia being the most well documented location for trafficking persons for forced labour into the industry. Thailand, a major exporter of fish and fishery products, for example, has had a well-publicised issue with the exploitation of men and children in the seafood and fishing industries.  (Value figures show that in 2009-10 69 per cent of Australia's imports of canned fish and 24 per cent of fresh, chilled or frozen prawns were from Thailand .)

Speaking in Parliament in August 2011, Minister Wilkinson accepted that 'some very serious allegations have been made, and that is one of the reasons why we are having a ministerial inquiry.'

The Inquiry Panel, headed by Paul Swain, a previous Labour Government Minister of Labour and Immigration, is planning to hold public meetings in October and to visit fishing vessels. Public submissions close on 7 October 2011 and the Inquiry is due to report its findings and recommendations to Ministers in late February 2012.  If it is demonstrated that the three principal government objectives (listed above) are being undermined by current practices, then the Inquiry is required to make recommendations relating to policy and legislative amendments as well as improvements to operational practices.


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