This week the Government received the report of the Ministerial Inquiry into the use of and operation of foreign charter vessels.
These vessels fish in our exclusive economic zone, on behalf of NZ companies that have quota allocations in different fish stocks. Some foreign charter vessels seem to operate with with few problems - those under Ukrainian, Japanese and Dominican flags seem to operate in compliance with New Zealand laws. But the reported abuses on some of the Korean flagged vessels are horrific.
A failure to pay minimum wages under NZ law (which the FCVs have agreed to do) is the least of the abuses. They get told they will lose the little pay they do get unless they lie to the NZ authorities about how much they are paid. Any complaints can see them lose bonds worth more than their earnings. They are forced to work long and dangerous hours with no regard for safety.
But even worse than there, there are several documented cases of physical violence, sexual abuse and even rape of the (mainly Indonesian) staff who work on these vessels. They are basically treated as slaves during their incarceration on the vessels. Actually many slaves in the Roman republic were treated better, than what has happened to these workers in our territorial waters.
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These abuses have gone on for far too long. New Zealand has even ended up on the watch list of the US State Department whose annual Trafficking in Persons Report mentions fishing in New Zealand as a problem area.
New Zealand law and policies require staff on board FCVs to be paid the at least $2 an hour over the New Zealand minimum wage, or $2,700 a month gross for a 42 hour week. But in reality many of the Indonesian fishers get paid little more than $150 a month or less than $1 an hour. They get told they must sign two employment contracts - one for the NZ authorities, and the real one which details a much lower rate of pay.
The Ministerial inquiry has not recommended phasing out the use of FCVs. The main reason for this is it seems there is not enough capacity in New Zealand to fish all of our quota ourselves. This surprises me with so many people unemployed, but I guess not many people want to be out at sea for weeks or months at a time. There are also issues of capital and specialist equipment.
A number of Iwi hold fishing quota. They say they would like to fish it themselves but don't have the resources to buy or lease a boat, and staff it. That is a pity, as part of the rationale for the fisheries treaty settlement of 20 years ago, was to build capacity and jobs amongst Maori in their traditional activity of fishing. It seems it is easier to just on-sell the quota (which to be fair does provide income for the Iwi to provide health and social services).
The Ministerial Inquiry has recommended that MAF place an observer on all FCVs which is something I have advocated previously. They are also recommending that the burden of proof around wage compliance be changed so that FCVs must prove they are paying the correct wages, by requiring them to go into a NZ bank account which can be audited. Further it is proposed that the NZ charter party must be the legal employer with crew having an enforceable NZ employment agreement.
There are a number of other recommendations also. The Government has already agreed to some of the recommendations, but is considering others in more detail. I believe it is important to keep the pressure on the Government to do everything they can to stop these abuses.
The problem is that its ability to act is limited, while the FCVs are flagged under the flags of other countries. This means that, for example, any rapes on board the ships are a matter for the flag state, not New Zealand, unless they are in New Zealand territorial waters (up to 12 miles out) rather than the New Zealand Exclusive Economic Zone (up to 200 miles out). This means that even these changes may prove ineffective, and the eventual solution may have to be require all vessels fishing in our EEZ to be New Zealand flagged ships. This would have adverse economic consequences, but we can't allow these abuses to continue in our waters, by ships fishing New Zealand quota.