Olivia Carville is an investigative reporter with the NZ Herald.

Exposed: The dark underbelly of human trafficking in New Zealand

The US Government identified New Zealand as a destination for human trafficking in 2004. So why did it take 12 years for authorities here to secure a conviction? Olivia Carville investigates.
Human trafficking is the second largest illicit crime in the world, reaping billions of dollars in illegal profits every year. Illustration / Andrew Louis
Human trafficking is the second largest illicit crime in the world, reaping billions of dollars in illegal profits every year. Illustration / Andrew Louis

A young woman sold to an undercover police officer for $3000; starving unpaid migrant workers stealing food; foreign women forced to work as sex slaves 12 hours a day.

These incidents of human trafficking didn't occur in an underdeveloped country battling a migrant crisis, but here, in New Zealand.

Passports have been confiscated, false promises made, deportation threats uttered and people caught up in modern day slavery since 1990, the Herald has found.

As an isolated and supposedly clean, green and pure island in the South Pacific, one does not usually correlate the dark and sordid crime of human trafficking with the Land of the Long White Cloud.

We are a developed nation, we don't have refugees flooding our borders and, until last week, we've never had a human trafficking conviction.

But when looking at previous criminal cases relating to worker exploitation and slave labour, a tapestry of trafficking begins to emerge.

The first such conviction was against Faroz Ali. A jury in the High Court at Auckland last week found the 46-year-old guilty of multiple charges of human trafficking and exploitation.

The verdict was a success for the Government, which has vowed to crack down on migrant exploitation.

It was also a reminder of the lack of official action over human trafficking in New Zealand and a reluctance even to acknowledge its existence stretching back at least three decades.

Human trafficking - the movement, deception or coercion of people for the purposes of exploitation - is the second largest illicit crime in the world, reaping billions of dollars in illegal profits every year.

It is thought to be one of the fastest-growing activities of the trans-national criminal underworld and, contrary to popular belief, is not related to people smuggling.

Trafficking can include forced labour, domestic service, commercial sexual exploitation, forced marriage and sweatshop labour.

Ali was found guilty of enticing 15 Fijian workers to New Zealand on false promises of $900 weekly wages for fruit picking.

Faroz Ali is the first person convicted of human trafficking in New Zealand. Photo / Pool
Faroz Ali is the first person convicted of human trafficking in New Zealand. Photo / Pool

He charged them exorbitant fees and then exploited them upon arrival by forcing them to work illegally and live in overcrowded conditions, underpaying them and threatening them with deportation if they complained.

The court heard how the workers felt "betrayed" by Ali and how many are still thousands of dollars in debt with their friends and family after borrowing money to pay for his scam.

"We were made fools. All of us," one worker said during his testimony. Another cried on the stand saying she will never be able to pay her friends and family back.

Ali faces a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment or a $500,000 fine or both. He will be sentenced in October.

New Zealand has been identified by US Government reports as a destination country for human trafficking since 2004.

So why did it take 12 years to secure a human trafficking conviction?

Like the crime, the answer is complex and multifaceted.

Trafficking becomes a target

After flying under the radar for at least a decade, human trafficking only became a major target for Immigration New Zealand (INZ) about two years ago.

Up until then immigration officials focused on cases of border control or catching individuals trying to dupe the system to enter New Zealand illegally.

New policies have transformed the victim from the immigration system as a whole to targeting exploited migrant workers, said Alistair Murray, INZ northern area manager for investigation and compliance and an ex-detective inspector.

Unlike in most other countries, human trafficking cases in New Zealand are investigated by immigration authorities rather than police.

"There's been a number of areas where immigration hasn't had the presence in the past," said Murray.

Trafficking is one of them.

Last year the Government amended the Crimes Act to include domestic human trafficking, meaning the deception of workers doesn't have to occur offshore but can happen within New Zealand's borders.

The move has seen New Zealand finally catch up with countries like Canada and Australia that broadened their definition of trafficking more than a decade ago.

Early last year, 21 investigators, many with a police background, were hired by INZ to combat top tier immigration offences, including trafficking.

The Serious Offences Unit for INZ operates from an unassuming office building overlooking the hustle and bustle of Auckland's Queen St.

Every year the INZ compliance office receives about 900 complaints or allegations of immigration-related offences with the most severe, such as the Ali case, referred to the unit.

It took almost 6000 man hours, multiple trips to Fiji and complex analysis of information from cellphone transmitter towers to gather enough evidence to launch a prosecution against Ali.

"It was a massive resource investment," said Murray. "We were looking for the first conviction in New Zealand history."

Estimates on the prevalence of trafficking in New Zealand differ drastically depending who you talk to. Illustration / Andrew Louis
Estimates on the prevalence of trafficking in New Zealand differ drastically depending who you talk to. Illustration / Andrew Louis

A Herald analysis of worker exploitation cases that occurred before the law change found many could have been classified as trafficking under the new legislation. They either resulted in other criminal charges being laid, such as immigration fraud or worker exploitation, or in some cases no charges at all.

Examples include:

• In 2010, a 60-year-old brothel owner who posed as a young surfer online and lured a teenager to New Plymouth before forcing her into the sex trade was convicted of child exploitation.

• Filipino workers on the post-quake Christchurch rebuild have been exploited with exorbitant fees and forced to live in overcrowded, substandard accommodation with three men to a room. Their contracts stipulated they would be liable for $10,000 if they left before three years. No one was charged, but immigration advisors have faced disciplinary proceedings over the case since 2012.

• In 2001, a Thai woman escaped from a brothel and claimed she had been trafficked and forced into prostitution. She said she had paid $10,000 and was promised a job at a restaurant, but upon arrival in New Zealand her passport and return ticket home were confiscated. She was housed in overcrowded conditions and forced to work in the sex trade from 1pm to the early hours of the morning every day, while handing over the majority of her earnings to her trafficker. No one was ever charged and the woman was repatriated to Thailand.

• There are allegations migrant workers in the fishing industry have been exposed to exploitation and physical and sexual abuse while aboard foreign charters in New Zealand waters for years. It is alleged their passports were confiscated, they were forced into debt bondage and had to work excessively long hours. In 2012, the Government announced a ministerial inquiry into foreign charter vessels.

• In 1991, a Thai national was convicted of dealing in slaves and sentenced to five years in prison for offering to sell a 26-year-old woman to an undercover police officer for $3000. The man confiscated the woman's passport and return ticket home and forced her to work in the sex industry in Auckland.

• In 2014, migrant workers in the Bay of Plenty arrived in New Zealand with the promise of jobs in restaurants or offices. Upon arrival they were made to work in kiwifruit orchards run by forced labour gangs and threatened with beatings or deportation if they didn't comply.

Government reports say human labour trafficking occurs within the horticulture, hospitality, nursing, manufacturing and tourism industries, among others. Photo / Duncan Brown
Government reports say human labour trafficking occurs within the horticulture, hospitality, nursing, manufacturing and tourism industries, among others. Photo / Duncan Brown

By failing to label these exploitation cases as trafficking - and, therefore, not obtain convictions, New Zealand has skewed international figures on the prevalence of the crime in the South Pacific.

The risk of not calling it what it really is means the Government may be reluctant to pour resources into preventing the crime because it is not on the political agenda, said Peter Mihaere of Stand Against Slavery.

If more cases such as the Ali prosecution are publicly defined as trafficking, "the canvas is going to start having some paint on it," Mihaere said.

"It's about raising awareness and admitting there's an issue."

Despite the lack of prosecutions in New Zealand, the country was first identified as a destination country for human trafficking in 2004 by the US State Department's Office Trafficking In Persons report, an annual report ranking all countries on their efforts to combat the crime.

Last year, the report said New Zealand was a "destination country for foreign men and women subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking and a source country for children subjected to sex trafficking".

Is New Zealand 100% pure?

Estimates on the prevalence of trafficking in New Zealand differ drastically depending who you talk to.

Some activists claim New Zealand is a hub of trafficking, with underage prostitutes being enslaved by gangs and workers being underpaid and underfed in almost every major labour industry.

However, officials claim New Zealand has fairly low rates of trafficking, citing only two prosecutions - and that one conviction - to date.

No one really knows how prevalent trafficking is in New Zealand, or anywhere else. Such cases have low conviction rates, usually because the only evidence is victim testimony and those who have been trafficked are vulnerable, scared and unwilling to trust authorities.

Most other developed countries have conducted research into this area to try to quantify the crime, but New Zealand has been slow to act.

The first report on the prevalence of trafficking and New Zealand's anti-trafficking laws was published in 2013 by a coalition of non-governmental organisations called Justice ACTs.

The report found loopholes in what it described as insufficient legislation and said many people wrongly believed New Zealand was too isolated for trafficking to be taking place.

"With the growth of globalisation and migration into and out of New Zealand, the ignorance of New Zealanders and our government to trafficking, the lack of regulation and government intervention in the market and the legalisation of the sex industry have made it easier for trafficking and exploitation to go unnoticed," it read.

Despite a lack of evidence or academic research, the report found anecdotal reports of trafficking in the agriculture, viticulture, retail, fishing and sex industries as well as investigative reports within government on the hospitality, nursing, horticulture, manufacturing, tourism, fishing and sex industries.

Auckland lawyer Steph Roughton, who has international experience researching trafficking, was one of the authors and said the lack of official evidence meant there was a "real reticence to acknowledge the crime".

"We as a nation have felt that because we are an island in the South Pacific we are away from all the darkness in the world and away from all the organised crime," she said.

"Our 100% Pure slogan has been used for quite some time and to acknowledge that something as dark and criminal as trafficking was occurring in New Zealand would damage that reputation in the international sense."

A crime that must be stopped

Human trafficking only came on the global political agenda as an organised crime in 2000, according to Rebecca Miller, New Zealand's leading expert in this filed and INZ's trafficking in persons programme manager.

Since then, there have been major misconceptions about what trafficking is, said Miller, who has been involved in the international anti-trafficking scene for more than a decade.

Rebecca Miller, Immigration New Zealand programme manager for people smuggling and trafficking in persons. Photo / Supplied
Rebecca Miller, Immigration New Zealand programme manager for people smuggling and trafficking in persons. Photo / Supplied

"It's the images that have been portrayed of the victim chained to a bed or cowering in a corner that aren't painting an accurate picture of trafficking," she said.

"Often this is about migrants looking for better economic opportunities and it's not until the person arrives in New Zealand that the deception and exploitation becomes apparent. That's a more common picture."

Globally, trafficking has three components: first there is the act of receiving, recruiting, harbouring or transporting a person, then there is the means of coercing or deceiving that person and finally the purpose of exploiting that person.

Without all three elements, officials will struggle to launch a prosecution, Miller said.

In some trafficking cases, workers have not been allowed days off or been confined to a location or underpaid. The most severe scenarios can involve physical and sexual abuse, abduction and even "people being shot and killed".

Because New Zealand doesn't have any land borders, is geographically isolated and has legislation in place to combat trafficking, criminal rings would be deterred from targeting the country, she said.

Miller added there have been cases of exploitation in New Zealand's history "that might have elements of trafficking but be prosecuted under different legislation."

But, at the end of the day, the most important thing is to secure a conviction and sometimes authorities might decide the case would have a higher chance of success if fraud, exploitation or assault charges were laid, she said.

"We don't want to get caught up in laying people trafficking charges when the end goal is to put the perpetrator behind bars," Miller said.

Since Miller joined the Government as an international trafficking expert, she said there has been a serious focus on migrant exploitation and a commitment to eliminating people trafficking.

"It's time for us to have a proper conversation about what trafficking is in New Zealand," she said.

"This is a serious crime and it needs to be stopped."

Selling sex on the backpages of the internet

There appears to be official reluctance to admit domestic sex trafficking of any kind occurs in New Zealand. Illustration / Andrew Louis
There appears to be official reluctance to admit domestic sex trafficking of any kind occurs in New Zealand. Illustration / Andrew Louis

Hundreds of young women in New Zealand are selling themselves for sex on a classified ad website notorious for trafficking across North America.

Advertisements offering a "very pretty Maori girl" or the "sexiest Indian girl", or "Caribbean beauty" are live on Backpage.co.nz. The ads include explicit photos of the women and a short biography explaining their physical features, what kind of sexual services they are willing to provide and how much they will charge.

In one of the ads, an 18-year-old is offering unprotected sex in a downtown hotel in Wellington.

Backpage has come under fire in the United States, with four senators calling for the immediate shutdown of the site because they claimed "its victims - often children - are repeatedly purchased and raped by customers".

Mounting public pressure against sex trafficking in North America has also seen major credit card companies cut ties with Backpage's adult section because of the repeated links to criminal trafficking rings.

Toronto, a hub of trafficking in Canada, has seen hundreds of cases of domestic sex trafficking and every single victim rescued by police so far has been sold on the site.

Every day, investigators from the Toronto Police trafficking enforcement team trawl Backpage to look for new victims and say monitoring the site is a major part of their efforts to prevent this crime.

In comparison, most New Zealand-based authorities the Herald contacted for this story had not even heard of the site and were therefore unaware young women were selling themselves through it. Police said they could not comment on whether they were monitoring the site because that information was "withheld".

The Herald contacted a few of the girls advertising sex on Backpage and spoke to one who said she could not talk because someone was in the room with her. Before hanging up, she said the phone was being used by seven other girls who were also selling themselves on the site.

Backpage includes a note on its adult-related sites directing users to report any illegal activity including human trafficking. In late 2014, the site was sold from Dallas-based Village Voice Media to a Dutch holding company.

A representative from Backpage told the Herald the site could not make any public comments about its online adult escort advertisements "due to pending legal maters in the US".

New Zealand government officials have acknowledged and vowed to combat labour trafficking of migrant workers, but there appears to be reluctance to admit domestic sex trafficking of any kind occurs here.

When the Herald put questions about sex trafficking to police, we were referred to INZ who referred us back to the police.

Auckland University researcher Natalie Thorburn is writing a doctoral thesis on domestic sex trafficking in New Zealand.

"There has been absolutely nothing done on this area so far," she said.

Sex trafficking - or forced prostitution - was "absolutely and conclusively" happening in New Zealand, she said.

"And most people who work in domestic and sexual violence will probably agree with that."

The US Trafficking In Persons report agrees.

In 2004, the report said New Zealand faces "a large problem of children being internally trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation".

Pacific Island and Maori youth are particularly at risk of sex trafficking through street prostitution, the report said.

A total lack of cohesion between the Government and its agencies about how to handle or investigate these cases meant no one was willing to admit sex trafficking was occurring in New Zealand, Thorburn said.

The dominant perception of New Zealand being a clean, green and incorruptible oasis doesn't fit the reality anymore, she said.

"We definitely have sexual exploitation, but nobody is ready to label it as trafficking," she said.

"I think there is a real lack of understanding about what that definition is in New Zealand. If people were to understand it, then they would believe it."

- NZ Herald

Anyone with concerns about human trafficking or exploitation in New Zealand should contact Immigration New Zealand or the Labour Inspectorate on 0800 209 020.

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