A Hawke's Bay horticultural labour contractor has been sentenced to 11 years in jail in New Zealand's first prosecution for dual offences of people trafficking and slavery.

The sentence was imposed on the now 66-year-old Joseph Auga Matamata, also known as Viliamu Samu, the holder of the family chief title of Matai in Samoa and who appeared today before Justice Helen Cull in the High Court in Napier.

Justice Cull allowed a discount from a starting point to account for forfeiture of assets, and an order of $183,000 in reparation to complainants, but declined to allow a discount for cultural background, saying "the fact remains" Matamata abused his position in the Samoan title of Matai.

She declined to apply a minimum non-parole term.

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Matamata was in March found guilty on 13 charges of dealing in slaves and 10 of trafficking in persons, being found not guilty on just one of the 24 charges against him.

They related to offences against 13 people brought from his home community to work in New Zealand over a 25-year period from 1994 to his arrest in December 2018.

The maximum penalty for trafficking in law is 20 years, and for slavery 14 years, said Justice Cull, noting particular aggravating factors were the quarter-century span of the offences, the number of victims, use of the victims as Matamata's own "personal property", and that offences against others occurred even after early victims had absconded, caught and been deported.

Outisde court today, Detective Inspector Mike Foster acknowledged the victims, saying it was "incredibly brave to come forward and give evidence against a matai, a chief, they did an incredible job".

He said victims were emotionally and physically abused and "went through a pretty awful ordeal".

Immigration New Zealand general manager verification and compliance Stephen Vaughan said it was as "absolute disgrace" that Matamata meted out violence to his victims.

He said it "took a long time to put the pieces together Matamata's lies, deception and the way he manipulated the people who were working for him".

Charges were laid after a three-year investigation between police, Immigration New Zealand and Samoan authorities took place.

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The human trafficking and slavery offences were against 13 victims.

Foster said they began with two victims who had come forward, and more were uncovered during the investigation.

"Many of the people who have gone back will be too afraid to come back to this country."

Vaughan said the case remains a new low for New Zealand. "You don't see the likes of this type of offending in court very often.

Matamata, from the villages of Faala Savaii and Manonotai on Savaii, the biggest island in Samoa, had come to New Zealand about 40 years ago and lived in the Hastings suburb Camberley.

Justice Cull said victim impact statements from the 13 victims showed a thread of cultural shame over not being paid and being unable to return money to Samoa for their families, and being unable now to return to New Zealand because of their immigration status.

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While Matamata arranged and paid for visitor visas, workers were forced into overstaying to work, mainly not paid as promised. There were cases of effectively being held captive and one escaped to Auckland before being found by Matamata, who then returned the victim to Hawke's Bay.

Justice Cull said Matamata took the passports of the victims, several of whom arrived as teenagers, and that victims lived on his properties of two houses and two garages, told to do chores, and not to talk to anyone outside.

If the victims did not perform to expectations, they were assaulted, and their evidence in court was "compelling", the judge said.

Several absconded and were captured by police, in breach of immigration requirements, and when they returned to Samoa most were not prepared to talk about their experiences, out of cultural shame.

Crown prosecutors were Clayton Walker and Fiona Cleary and the defence counsel Roger Philip.

Walker sought a sentence of 15-16 years, plus six months to reflect a previous record (of violent and other offences), less 18 months to recognise reparation of $183,000, being the balance from a half-share of two family homes in Kiwi St, Camberley, in an arrangement between the parties after a separate forfeiture hearing in the court last month.

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Philip suggested a starting point of 13-14 years, with a two-year discount to reflect the forfeiture and reparation, saying it was accepted the defendant must be accountable, although he had been disappointed with the verdicts.

Walker said Matamata used his position of trust as a "matai", or chief, in his village in Samoa, to control the victims, most of whom were at a "distinctive disadvantage", not well educated, poor and travelling abroad for the first time, believing they would be earning money for themselves and to help families back in the islands.

Seasonal work labour contractor Joseph Matamata on his way to court in the last stages of his trial in March. Photo / File
Seasonal work labour contractor Joseph Matamata on his way to court in the last stages of his trial in March. Photo / File

He estimated the total financial benefit to Matamata could have been more than $400,000, but the victims could never be fully compensated for their loss.