Phil Heatley comes under heat for fisheries, blames Labour
Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Phil Heatley came under heat in the house from Labour's Shane Jones yesterday for allegations of New Zealand companies supporting slavery-like conditions on fishing vessels cruising within our waters. The questions follow a Sunday Star Times article that revealed that New Zealand companies are paying foreign commercial fishing boats to cut costs in an arrangement that ignores the fact that many of the employees are being payed below the minimum wage, in some cases not being paid, regularly being beaten, and at sea in unseaworthy boats.
Questions for oral answer, 5 April 2011
Hon SHANE JONES (Labour) to the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture: Does he still have no major concerns about the way foreign boats were used by New Zealand companies as the Nelson Mail reports he said last year?
Hon PHIL HEATLEY (Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture) : As Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture I have concerns if any vessel, foreign or otherwise, misreports its catch, is not registered, breaches environmental standards, refuses to comply with requirements for observer coverage, or breaches any other obligations under the Fisheries Act.
Hon Shane Jones: Does he believe that foreign crews receiving wages reportedly as low as $238 per month is a major concern; if not, why not?
Hon PHIL HEATLEY: That is a matter for the Minister of Labour, but I am happy to comment. In the dying days of the previous Government, Labour reset the rules on foreign fishing crews’ wages and working conditions, and it seemed to be happy back then. I would be interested if the member could forward information to this Government if things have changed.
Hon Shane Jones: What specific improvements will he be advocating to ensure that foreign crews are adequately recompensed, or does he not care that this activity is besmirching the reputation of a major New Zealand industry?
Hon PHIL HEATLEY: As I said, that is a matter for the Minister of Labour, but it would be fair to say that the previous Government, in its last dying days, looked at fisheries regulations, vessel safety, crew welfare, and work visas. Labour came up with some changes at that time; I do not why it did not use that chance only 3 years ago, if it was so serious about this issue.
Heatley's response here is far from adequate. From talking to several people who have been involved in the fisheries industry, these conditions have been going on for a long time. Yes, the Labour government should have done something about it. But this kind of political bickering demonstrated by Heatley undercuts what a serious issue this is. Many of the boats are breaking New Zealand maritime law, with reports of unseaworthy boats sinking and other boats refusing to answer the distress calls, and instead continuing on fishing. They are breaking New Zealand employment law by dealing with agents that are taking the majority of their workers' wages and forcing people to work in sweatshop conditions. If it is illegal for me to pay an agent to have a factory of seamstresses working in these conditions in South Auckland, why on earth should New Zealand companies be able to get away with doing this off our shores?
As the excerpt below demonstrates, Talley's manages to pay its crew New Zealand wages and still turn a tidy profit making these companies look even more unethical.
Talley's has 11 ships, pays its crews New Zealand rates, and still makes a profit. "You would be amazed at the money these boys on our boats are making." Deckhands and factory workers earn between $40,000 and $80,000 a year.
Foreign charter vessels are chartered by New Zealand registered companies, in the case of the doomed Oyang 70, Southern Storm (2007) Ltd. On the morning the ship sank, 45% of the shares were held by Seoul's Oyang Corporation. Even as searchers were looking for the missing, the corporation had itself removed as a shareholder, leaving the company wholly-owned by Hyun Gwan Choi. Quota holders without their own boats hire foreign charter vessels and Talley says unscrupulous operators are using a model that doesn't require access to capital, catch entitlements, or ownership of processing factories or fishing boats.
"People are knowingly saying: 'I don't pay the crew, I just charter the boat. The crew is provided by an agent and the agent tells me he is paying full wages." The whole thing was wrecking the viability of New Zealand fishing. "All you need is an office, a secretary, a tough lawyer and you are in business. But it is not good for New Zealand."
The papers reveal government concerns that the low wages paid might become public. A Labour Department report, obtained under the Official Information Act, censors individual and boat names, but acknowledges crews were not being paid the minimum wage, and that agents take up to half of the money.
The papers reveal that a fisherman paid the minimum wage would get around $1400 a month, but officials imply that doesn't happen because it would be three to five times what an Indonesian deckhand might earn elsewhere.
Among the papers released is a 2008 Seafood Industry Council submission to government, noting "long-held concerns as to the condition and behaviour of some foreign charter vessels". The council now says charter vessel crew are paid above the New Zealand minimum wage and charter boats are not much older than the New Zealand fleet.
Auckland University's Jennifer Devlin, writing in the Australian and New Zealand Maritime Law Journal, questioned why New Zealand allowed "the exploitation of vulnerable workers in pursuit of profits for New Zealand fishing interests".
She pointed to an incident when 10 Indonesian fishermen escaped from the Korean vessel Sky 75 in Nelson. "They were fed rotten meat and vegetables, told to shower by standing on deck in the waves, made to continue working when sick or injured, and were constantly beaten. They endured all this for wages of $US200 a month – wages that weren't being paid."
What's worse is that Heatley admitted he had been in contact with the chief executive of Talley's for a long time over the concerns and (clearly) not done anything about it. The issue has now gone to the Primary Production Committee, who hopefully will have a little more teeth than Heatley, who seems quite okay with the notion of enslaving foreigners under his watch.