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.


Comments (6)

by Chris Morris on April 06, 2015
Chris Morris

From what I understand, most of the quota leased to Asian companies, particularly those with poor human rights records, is from iwi fishing interests. If this is substantially true, then it is a more serious issue. A major part of the fisheries settlement was because of the claim Maori had been shut out of the fishery. If their quota is now to allow slave-like conditions on foreign flagged factory ships, then the Maori fishers are no better off. Their tribal management is complicit in the dirty dealing.

Not the complaint changed from unable to fish to not maximising income along the way.

by Che Nua on April 07, 2015
Che Nua

Te Ohu Kaimoana & iwi-based fishing companies... Their tribal management is complicit in the dirty dealing

Yep 100% agree this has been a serious issue for some time which is making Maori look like hypocrites among other things.  The Treaty fisheries settlement was intended to encourage & maintain Maori business & employment in the industry not contract out our 'mana-moana' and live off the dividends (and sweathouse conditions of people from othe countries) global corporate style

by KJT on April 08, 2015

Oh come on.

What is the difference with New Zealanders expected to be on call 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year and only paid minimum wage for whatever hours they get.

A minimum wage that costs less than keeping a slave.

And the hay-sheds full of Filipino farm workers on $3 an hour.


by Brian Easton on April 10, 2015
Brian Easton

Chris Morris & Che Nugon

One of the points you make does not apply to Maori only. It has been disappointing that more New Zealanders – Maori and non-Maori – have not been employed in the seafaring part of the fishing industry.

However, it is misleading to say that Maori were given quota on the basis that it would directly generate jobs for Maori. They were given quota to settle a grievance over fishing rights, without restrictions on how they might use it. There were many, myself included, who hoped that would lead to more Maori jobs in the industry, but they were not obligated to provide them. It would appear that Maori holders of quota have done much the same as non-Maori holders.


It appears that some of the Asian seamen were getting paid cents per hour not dollars (if they were paid at all). That does not, of course, absolve us from not being concerned with poor working conditions in New Zealand of the sort you mention.

As an aside, this week the Ministry of Transport invited submissions on whether New Zealand should sign two international conventions on safety standards for new (and converted) ocean fishing vessels and on standards of training, certification and watchkeeping for fishing vessel personnel. The Ministry says that it does not anticipate any major problems with our agreeing to the conventions because they already largely reflect New Zealand law.

by Chris Morris on April 12, 2015
Chris Morris



My understanding is that all the boats involved in the "slavery" cases were leasing Maori quota. This perception has been reinforced by articles such as this: . Maori fishing interests also opposed earlier attempts to impose conditions on foreign charter vessels.   Note I acknowledge there are a lot of foreign vessels fishing in our waters but I am just talking about those that are in the spotlight for the poor conditions.  I will stand corrected if wrong.

The introduction of the Act was to settle the court cases. However, it was also so Maori could get into fishing using the quota. This is made clear in the Preamble l (ii)  This intent was changed by Maori fishing organisations to maximising value


by Chris Morris on April 12, 2015
Chris Morris

Googling news items, it seems the unions have had a long running campaign complaining about the conditions on the boats and trying to get the law changed. This has been supported by diverse groups.

Opposition to changing the law has come from both the iwi leaders and the Maori Party. That appears to be why the law wasn't changed.

It does appear that for many of the Maori fishing leaders, protecting their income trumps human rights.  




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