Slavery In New Zealand

How come we tolerated such appalling working conditions for so long? (And a tick for crusading journalism.) 

Charles Dickens would be appalled. So would Fredrick Engels who wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England, as would New Zealand’s Sweating Commission of 1890. Even Simon Legree, the slave owner in Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would be astonished at the working conditions and wages (or lack of) that employers were getting away with. But this is not in the nineteenth century nor even the twentieth. It is in this one, and even more extraordinarily it was neither in industrialising Britain nor slave-owning America. The slavery is in New Zealand.

The working conditions? Up to 18 hours a day with food, water and sleeping accommodation of the lowest quality. The pay rates? Often cents per hour, if paid at all.

Ah, you say, the slave labour is not actually in New Zealand, it is Asians on ships in our Exclusive Economic Zone (when they are not in port). But we claim the EEZ and they are fishing with our permission, using Individual Transferable Quota (ITQ) issued by the New Zealand government. It really has something to do with us.

First, some background. The average person on the planet eats about 17 kilograms of fish a year. You wont be far off that yourself if you eat fish on Fridays. The rising demand has generated two forms of exploitation.

First, the world has been fishing species to extinction. When one disappears, fishers seek out others. It is true that an increasing proportion of the fish come from ‘sustainable’ aquaculture, but farmed fish are usually fed fish from the sea.

New Zealand has a good record on this environmental exploitation because the ITQs are designed to allow fishing only at sustainable levels. I was marginally involved in their introduction thirty years ago and I do not recall anybody saying then that while the ITQ was brilliant in principle, the application of the principle is very complicated and clumsy. Even so, we are but one of a handful of countries that try to maintain a sustainable fish stock in this way and, in any case, vast areas of sea are outside countries’ EEZs while ITQs do not work for migrating fish – notably tuna. (New Zealand, by the way, has been active in international trading negotiations demanding that the subsidies for fishing be wound back. Alas we have been about as successful in this as in arguing for the elimination of subsidies on agriculture.)

Second, many crew on fishing vessels are exploited. Typically they are Asians – say, in our case, Indonesians – with officers from another country – say, Korea. The ships usually fly flags of convenience – including those from countries which have no sea borders – and regularly change them and their ship’s names to obscure the true ownership, especially when the rustbuckets are caught out.

How come they are fishing here? While the rules of ITQs say that they must be owned by New Zealand entities, the quota may be leased to foreign fishing companies. Asian-owned ones have been willing to offer better returns to the quota owners. That is not true for all the fishing in our waters. Some is under New Zealand flags and employ crew (including New Zealanders) with New Zealand pay rates and working conditions.

You can read more about the appalling practices in Michael Field’s The Catch: How Fishing Companies Reinvented Slavery and Plundered the Oceans. (And while commending the book, I also commend publisher Mary Varnham of Awa Press who, reading of Michael’s work in newspapers, asked him to write the book.)

Before you get too indignant – and give up eating fish – the New Zealand parliament eventually got around to addressing the disgrace. The last statute the previous parliament passed was the Fisheries (Foreign Charter Vessels and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2014, which requires that, from May 2016, all foreign-owned fishing vessels are to fly under a New Zealand flag and obey all New Zealand laws including labour ones.

So don’t be surprised if fish prices rise a little thereafter. It will still be healthy food with the advantage that it has been caught decently as well as sustainably. Since the regime does not apply elsewhere fish eaten overseas may not be as clean.

The time between Michael’s first articles in 2011 and the enactment was three years – five before implementation. (There was a review committee in between.) That is not too bad for us. However, foreign fishing began in the 1980s so who knows how much exploitation has occurred. Why did it take so long?

One factor is that new situations often generates abuses faster than we can respond to them. But thirty years? Perhaps because it was outside our purview but ,come on, we are proud of our huge EEZ. Then again, it did not involve New Zealanders but guest workers. Aside from the implicit racism, are we really willing to tolerate their getting a bum deal – do they on land?

I am left with the uneasy feeling that this is yet another instance of our penchant for light-handed regulation, of ignoring the uncomfortable, of leaving the unregulated market to deliver high-quality, ethical, sustainable products and services. It does not always work, does it?

Will there be an apology from the lackadaisical government? At the very least it could offer crusading journalist Michael Field a knighthood, perhaps in tandem with Nicky Hager.