New Zealand's reputation has been damaged by reports of abuse on foreign fishing boats and "urgent corrective action is required'' to fix standards, an inquiry has found.
A ministerial inquiry was launched last year following allegations that overseas crew members were working in appalling conditions on foreign charter vessels (FCV) for New Zealand companies, and were subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse.
Primary Industries Minister David Carter and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson today released the inquiry's report, which gave 15 recommendations to improve standards - six of which the Government planned to pick up immediately.
While the inquiry did not investigate specific claims of abuse, poor living and working conditions, and underpayment, the report said it had discussed the complaints in detail with some overseas crew members and government officials.
It said most of the reported incidents related to Korean-flagged vessels, and that the names of certain Korean boats and owners came up repeatedly.
"The alleged abuse is against predominantly Indonesian crew members,'' the report said.
"All five FCVs currently under investigation by government agencies for breaches of employment law or safety standards are flagged to Korea.''
The report found that the way some foreign flagged FCVs had been operating had "the potential to damage New Zealand's international standing and harm the fishing industry's reputation''.
"Criticisms have been directed not just at the foreign owners and operators of the vessels in question but also at the New Zealand charter parties concerned, for failing to ensure that their obligations under the Code of Practice on Foreign Fishing Crew are met.''
The Government had also been criticised for the weakness of its monitoring and enforcement regime, the report said.
In particular, New Zealand's seafood industry was at risk, with a number of companies noting that retailers in markets such as Britain were paying close attention to customers' ethical considerations around the foods they bought.
"It is clear to the Panel that a small number of operators of foreign-flagged FCVs have been mistreating their crews and acting in disregard of New Zealand's laws. These activities have put at risk New Zealand's standing in the international community and the reputation of the seafood industry,'' the report said.
"The panel has concluded that urgent corrective action is required in the way New Zealand regulates the activities of FCVs in its exclusive economic zone.''
The first three recommendations suggested practical improvements for how the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the Department of Labour and Maritime New Zealand could strengthen monitoring processes.
"The recommendations include updating the Code of Practice and strengthening the immigration approval process - both of which will help ensure better conditions for workers on FCVs,'' Ms Wilkinson said.
"We will also be adopting a recommendation that the New Zealand fishing companies chartering foreign vessels have to show the code is being followed.''
Ms Wilkinson said the move meant the onus would be on the companies, rather than the Department of Labour, which currently has to prove the code has been breached.
Recommendations four to six, which the Government said it would also introduce, proposed closer inter-agency cooperation, including setting up a pilot programme for at-sea monitoring of compliance with fisheries, vessel safety and labour standards.
The remaining recommendations proposed law amendments, policy changes and agreement to sign international conventions, which the ministers said they would be considering further.
Among the recommended legislative changes, were changes to the Fisheries Act that would give explicit power to revoke the registration of an FCV if information was received warranting reconsideration of the initial consent. Maritime Rules should also be revised to ensure they applied to FCVs as well as New Zealand ships.