The release yesterday of the findings of a ministerial inquiry into foreign charter fishing vessels working for New Zealand companies could hardly have been more timely.
The appalling conditions on some of these boats are beginning to attract international attention, and the potential for damage to this country's reputation is increasing.
Just last week, an American journalist's investigation prompted grocery chains Safeway and Wal-Mart to say they would look into their fish imports from New Zealand. The message was clear. The toleration of labour standards on our waters that would never be permitted on land must end.
The inquiry has essentially confirmed a University of Auckland report, released last August, which alleged that crews on foreign charter boats were subjected to physical, mental and sexual abuse, and that New Zealand officials were routinely lied to about wages and conditions.
It says that exploitation may not be widespread on the charter vessels but that where it occurred, it was serious. Blame was attributed particularly to Korean flagged boats.
"It is clear to the panel that there have been serious breaches of the code of practice," the inquiry said. "It is equally clear that the response of both the industry and government agencies has been inadequate."
Given such an unequivocal verdict, and the potential damage to this country's standing, the Government's reaction must be clear and decisive. It has said that it will act quickly on the first six of the inquiry's 15 recommendations.
These include updating the 2006 code of practice, which includes minimum working and living conditions for the predominantly Indonesian crews, and strengthening the immigration approval process. The onus is to be put on fishing companies, rather than the Department of Labour, to show the code is being observed.
But however strict a convention appears on paper, it acts as a deterrent to exploitation only if it is monitored and enforced. It is apparent that until now, there has been a routine disregard for this code, and no consequences.
Therefore, the most important response will probably be the strengthening of the Department of Labour's monitoring and enforcement, including an increased number of more thorough inspections. Further improvement should result from the Ministry of Fisheries placing an observer on all foreign charter vessels fishing in our exclusive economic zone.
Enforcement of the code could be expected to have some impact on the number of foreign charter vessels. According to the University of Auckland report, its essential non-observance has meant crews of foreign boats are paid $6700 to $11,600 a year, compared to foreign workers on New Zealand-flagged vessels receiving between $60,000 and $80,000.
That, in itself, goes a long way to explaining why as many as 27 foreign charter vessels operated in this country's waters in the 2010-11 year. But the arrangement also provides fishing companies with a far greater operational flexibility, especially in terms of adjusting their catching capacity. The way that this enhances returns to quota holders means charter vessels are likely to survive as an integral part of the fishing scene.
But, as the inquiry notes, the New Zealand public is entitled to assume that all crew operating in our waters, regardless of nationality, have safe working conditions, suitable accommodation, adequate water and food, fair levels of pay, and protection from abuse.
We also know that there will be repercussions internationally if this continues not to be the case. An untenable situation has been allowed to continue for too long. It is time to reel it in.