Each time I learn of another report about the appalling conditions endured by foreigners fishing for New Zealand companies off our coast, the parody of the old workers' anthem, The Red Flag, starts echoing in my head.

The one that starts, "The working class can kiss my arse, I've got the foreman's job at last."

For years, Maori fought for a share of the fisheries promised them under the terms of the Treaty of Waitangi. Harvesting the sea was an integral part of being Maori, they said. The sea fed them.

It also provided a means of livelihood for their people. In 1989 the Waitangi Fisheries Commission was established as part of an interim settlement. It was to oversee the 10 per cent of quota, $50 million in cash and other fishing assets granted to Maori, until tribes
agreed how to split the assets.


In 1992 came the Sealord deal, giving Maori 50 per cent of Sealord Fisheries, 20 per cent of the quota for new species and additional cash and shares in other companies.

In 2004, Te Ohu Kai Moana was set up to oversee these assets. Since then Maori have built up this asset and now, according to the Ministry of Fisheries, "control or influence more than 30 per cent of our commercial fisheries".

As far as the $4 billion plus domestic fishing quota is concerned, Maori interests control around 37 per cent of it.

But instead of expanding the local fishing fleet, and creating new jobs onshore, the Maori quota owners are hiring ancient Asian and Ukrainian boats to do the fishing, and most of the processing is done overseas.

They are turning a blind eye to the often scandalous conditions of the workers on these ships.

Following the recent release of a report by an Auckland University team headed by Dr Christina Stringer, probing the labour and human rights abuses aboard foreign fishing vessels, Council of Trade Unions secretary Peter Conway called for pressure to be put on the fishing quota holders, not on the protesting Indonesian fishermen now facing deportation after fleeing their ship.

"The work visas for these fishermen require that there be a legally responsible New Zealand party to their work agreement," he said.

He demanded that quota holders be included "among the people responsible for the wages and conditions of these workers, by making the holder of New Zealand fishing quota vicariously liable for crimes committed against employees on ships they contract to fish their quota, if they ought to have known abuse was likely to occur". On the other side of the political divide there is similar concern.


In May, Fisheries Minister Phil Heatley called on delegates to the Maori Fisheries Conference in Nelson to address the issue of foreign crewing. He said it wouldn't go away "in a high unemployment economy".

Putting aside his speech notes, he was reported by the Nelson Mail telling delegates they faced "two tensions".

The first was, "if you dump foreign fishing crews, you'll drive down the return to quota holders. On the other hand, if you don't more and more involve domestic fleets and your own people, the case will always be put, why have we got Maori on the dole, not involved in a very lucrative industry, and we've got foreigners involved instead?" He rubbed it in by adding, "and that is a good case to run".

He warned it would be much better if Maori reached agreement rather than "decisions being driven by media".

As the minister points out, Maori unemployment rates are more than double the overall figures, 13.7 per cent in the most recent Household Labour Force Survey, to 6.5 per cent overall. The unemployment rate for Maori youth was 24.8 per cent. The minister raised the obvious question.

According to Dr Stringer, upwards of 2000 foreign crew are employed around the New Zealand coast on 27 foreign charter vessels. Why aren't New Zealand ships and crews and processing plants more involved in this lucrative export industry instead?

Successive government policy has been to support the use of foreign crews provided they enjoy the same terms and conditions as New Zealanders, therefore not creating an unfair advantage through lower labour costs.

There is also a code of practice, dated October 19, 2006 and signed by the Department of Labour, the Seafood Industry Council and the NZ Fishing Guild, which declares adherence to the code "is a mandatory part of requirements set by the Government for the issue of immigration visas and permits to foreign fishing crew".

Under it, the crews are entitled to at least the minimum New Zealand wage, and "the right to work in a safe environment".

If Dr Stringer is correct, the code is a joke. She reports crews of foreign charter ships getting paid $6700 to $11,600 a year compared to foreign workers on New Zealand flagged-ships getting between $60,000 and $80,000.

There's testimony of beatings and sexual assault. Not to forget the sinking last August of the Oyang 70, killing six crew while fishing Maori iwi quota off Dunedin. A few months later, the No 1 Insung, based in Bluff, disappeared in the Ross Sea, killing
22 crew.

Mr Heatley and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson last month announced a ministerial inquiry into foreign charter fishing to ensure, among other things, "we are getting the best economic return from our deep sea fisheries".

In what is "a high unemployment economy", top on that list should be jobs for New Zealanders.