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Foreign fishing boats, Hobbits, and the National Guvmint…

2 March 2012 7 comments

… what could be the link, you wonder?

Those of us with reasonably long-term memories can recall the industrial dispute between Actor’s Equity and Peter Jackson, which became public on 27 September 2010.

The s**t quickly hit the fan, with allegations; counter-allegations; hysterical threats; and quite a bit of egoism.

There was even a panic that “The Hobbit” would be taken out of New Zealand and made in Eastern Europe, or Kazahkstan, or Outer Mongolia. None of it was true, as an email dated 18 October 2010, between Jackson and Economic Minister, Gerry Brownlee clearly stated.

But it certainly ramped up the public hysteria; the moral panic against the “hairy arm of unionism”; and seemingly threatened our very national identity.

In response, the government did something quite extraordinary; they passed legislation to change the status of all employees  “so that workers involved with film production work will be independent contractors rather than employees“.

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It was done unilaterally and it was done within twenty hours. Assent by the Governor General was given the following day,

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Legislative history

28 October 2010 Introduction (Bill 229–1), first reading, second reading, committee of the whole House, third reading
29 October 2010 Royal assent


Reference

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It usually takes a natural disaster of cataclysmic proportions, or a Declaration of War, (or the passing of MP’s superannuation regulations in the deads of night) to effect legislation at such breathtaking speed.

Legislation usually takes months to pass, from First Reading; to Select Committee;  to the last Reading; passing; and enactment.

The last time Parliament passed legislation at near light-speed was in the late 1980s, when they passed a law regarding their superannuation entitlements. That was done late at night; when the media were absent; most of us were asleep; and took a matter of hours.

(When the media  discovered this, and duly reported it, public odium was heaped upon politicians – even more than usual.)

So it was unusual and quite bizarre that National passed what was called the “Hobbit Law” in one day flat.

Something must’ve spooked the horses. Perhaps our politicians were dazzled by the bright lights of Hollywood glamour?

Korean and Indonesian fishing boats, by comparison, are not quite so dazzling and glamourous. In fact, they stink of fish; the crew look wretched; and the fishing boats themselves are dangerous rust-buckets that will sink with little provocation.

Yet, in the last couple of weeks, the fishing industry and our use of FCV (Foreign Charter Vessels), with the cheap, exploited labour of their Korean, Indonesian, and other nationals’ crews, has hit the international headlines. All of a sudden, the New Zealand fishing industry was in the global media spotlight – and for all the wrong reasons.

The world had discovered that we were using cheap, exploited labour to do our dirty work. The New Zealand fishing industry was practically engaging in slave labour,

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On March 25, 2011, Yusril became a slave. That afternoon he went to the East Jakarta offices of Indah Megah Sari (IMS), an agency that hires crews to work on foreign fishing vessels. He was offered a job on the Melilla 203, a South Korea-flagged ship that trawls in the waters off New Zealand. “Hurry up,” said the agent, holding a pen over a thick stack of contracts in a windowless conference room with water-stained walls. Waving at a pile of green Indonesian passports of other prospective fishermen, he added: “You really can’t waste time reading this. There are a lot of others waiting, and the plane leaves tomorrow.”

[abridged]

The experiences of the fishermen on the Melilla 203 were not unique. In a six-month investigation, Bloomberg Businessweek found cases of debt bondage on the Melilla 203 and at least nine other ships that have operated in New Zealand’s waters. As recently as November 2011, fish from the Melilla 203 and other suspect vessels were bought and processed by United Fisheries, New Zealand’s eighth-largest seafood company, which sold the same kinds of fish in that period to distributors operating in the U.S. (The U.S. imports 86 percent of its seafood.) The distributors in turn sold the fish to major U.S. companies. Those companies — which include some of the country’s biggest retailers and restaurants — sold the seafood to American consumers.”

Full Story

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On the 25th of this month,

The Government has received a report from the ministerial inquiry into the use and operation of Foreign Charter Vessels. Primary Industries Minister David Carter and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said they would consider its recommendations before announcing any decisions. The inquiry was charged with looking at labour, immigration, maritime safety and fisheries laws around the use and operation of fishing boats. Former labour minister Paul Swain chaired the panel, launched after a series of damning revelations about slave labour conditions and abuse. ” (Source)

Five days later, the report from the Ministerial Inquiry was released  to the public,

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Source

Radio NZ: Listen to more from Checkpoint

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There we have it;

  • New Zealand had been using slave labour to fish it’s territorial waters, and exploiting the crews of FCVs for our profit,
  • Fishing companies like Sanford deny that any problem of abuse and exploitation is occurring,
  • and most astonishingly, our government is dragging it’s feet on this horrendous situation and implementing only  six of fifteen recommendations from the Ministerial Inquiry’s report.

In an interview on Radio NZ’s “Checkpoint“, on 1 March, the Minister for Primary Industries, David Carter, had this to say in response to being questioned on this issue,

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RNZ: “So fifteen recommendations – you’re acting on the first six? Why not take them all onboard?”

Carter: “Because some of the others require two things; legislative change and we need to investigate how we can progress that through the House. And equally importantly, some of them would have, or potentialy could have, economic impacts on the industry.

That is why we have released the Report today. We want the industry to comment on the other recommendations so that we can do some more work on them and take something back for a Cabinet process [interuption] in a couple of months.”

RNZ: “In the future do you see that these recommendations  will be taken on?”

Carter: “I think a good number of those recommendations will be taken on.”

RNZ: “How many?”

Carter: “Well at this stage we’ve, ah, ah, we’ve certainly kicked of the first six because they’ve been able to be done without legislation. As I say, the others now need further investigation to find out what their impact will be  before we agree to do them. But one thing the government is absolutely determined to do is raise the standards so there is no chance for abusive labour practices occurring on foreign charter vessels whilst they’re in New Zealand waters.”

RNZ: ” Will you take on the recommendations that have – that may cause problems economically? Make it unviable?”

Carter: “What we want to do is… the first thing I’d like to make is that foreign charter vessels operate and improve the efficiency of the New Zealand fishing industry. We therefore want to know what would be the economic impacts of these further changes.

Radio NZ: Minister talks about crackdown on foreign fishing vessels

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What comes out of David Carter’s comments is that,

  1. The governments wants to consult with fishing companies before implementing any further recommendations. These would be (some of) the same fishing companies that contracted and used Foreign Charter Vessels to catch fish for them, to sell for big profits to overseas markets.
  2. The govermnment “want[s] to know what would be the economic impacts of thse further changes – before implementing any further recommendations. Obviously, “economic impact” is more important than the maltreatment, abuse, and exploitation of other human beings?
  3. According to Carter, the government will have to “investigate” the recommendations further as “ some of them would have, or potentialy could have, economic impacts on the industry“?

Two months?!

And yet this is the same government that passed legislation through the House in one day, to satisfy the demands of Warner Bros corporate executives!

Where were the concerns of government on that issue? Where was the investigation into what “economic impact” that would, or could be, in fast-tracking law through Parliament at a speed rarely seen in this country?

Where was the desire for thegovernment to seek comment from the  film industry, before considering  legislation”?

What we are seeing here is the amorality of a government that values the glitter and glamour of a Hollywood “epic” movie above  the fact that modern-day slavery is taking place in our territorial waters, and New Zealand companies are profiting from the misery and violence   inflicted on other human beings.

The NZ Seafood Industry Council laid it all out last October (but we were too pre-occupied with lost penguins and hillside signs, to take note of this news item,

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‘We need more cheap foreign fishermen’

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New Zealand’s fishing industry needs more cheap Asian labour not less, the Seafood Industry Council (SeaFIC) told a ministerial inquiry into the use of foreign charter vessels.

FCVs, flagged in mainly Asian states, operate New Zealand’s deep sea fishery with around 2000 low wage crews from Third World countries.

SeaFIC says New Zealand-flagged fishing boats cannot get local crews and they now want to import low wage labour as well.

Despite high unemployment it was hard to get New Zealanders to work on fishing boats.

New Zealanders did not like being at sea for weeks at a time, working in uncomfortable conditions and living in an isolated and enforced alcohol and drug free environment.

“It is not seen as an attractive work place for many people.”

SeaFIC says FCVs hiring Asian crews was no different to companies going to low wage countries.

“Many New Zealand businesses have exported jobs previously done in New Zealand to other countries with wage rates considerably less than minimum wage rates in New Zealand.”

It named Fisher & Paykel, Fonterra and Icebreaker.

Air New Zealand uses Chinese crew on its China service who are paid less than New Zealanders doing the same jobs.

Without referring to the Rena grounding it said most ships operating on the New Zealand coast are crewed by people from the same low wage countries used by FCVs.

It said New Zealand was seen in other countries as a source of cheap skilled labour and pointed to Qantas hiring New Zealand crews at rates lower than Australians would get. The New Zealand film industry was based on cheap labour, SeaFIC said. 

There were not enough New Zealanders to fill vacancies created if FCVs were ordered out.

The inquiry opened public submissions in Wellington today. It will hold hearings in Auckland, Nelson and Christchurch.

It was set up following a University of Auckland study into FCVs and media reports citing cases of labour abuse and exploitation.

Last year an aged FCV, Oyang 70, sank off the Otago coast, killing six.

The government in setting up the inquiry said they were concerned at the damage to reputation New Zealand was suffering over FCVs and allegations it  was a form of human trafficking.

SeaFIC say there is no evidence that FCV companies are failing to pay their crews according a code of practice which requires crews to receive the New Zealand minimum wage.

New Zealand’s reputation is not a function of compliance by the companies, but the result of public opinion.

“The intensity of comment in the media, whether based on fact or allegation, may present risk to international reputation.”

FCV crews do not pay tax or Accident Compensation levies.

“A tax paying, single New Zealand resident not entitled to any additional tax or welfare assistance would need to earn $37,650 gross ($32,760 net) to be better paid than a crewman on a FCV.”

Through FCVs, the fishing industry was transferring over $65 million annually to citizens of developing countries.

By comparison, it said, the New Zealand Government gave just $31 million to Oxfam and Volunteer Service Aboard to work in such countries.

SeaFIC admitted that their submission was not supported by all its members and amounted only to a majority view of fishing quota owners who use FCVs.

Source

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Words fail me.

Actually, no. I do have words.

On this issue, the people and government of New Zealand  has let itself down badly. For the pursuit of money, we have turned a blind eye to naked, brutal, exploitation. We have lost sight of  simple, common decency and how to treat foreign workers.

As far as I’m concerned, if the U.S. government, or Europe, decided to boycott our seafood exports – then we richly deserve it.

This is what happens when a society is governed by the dictates of the “free market”.

Where do we go from here, as a society? Do we continue down the road of valuing profit before human dignity? Or do we reassess our priorities and decide that we need to regain some of the basic  values of fairness that we seem to have forgotten in the last 27 years?

It’s our call.

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Previous Blogpost

Roosting Chickens

Is this where New Zealand is heading?

Additional Reading

Radio NZ: Parliament debates Hobbit law change

Helen Kelly (NZ Council of Trade Unions): The Hobbit Dispute

Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Bill

Legislative History: Employment Relations (Film Production Work) Amendment Act 2010 No 120, Public Act

Slavery and Food Security: The Fishing Fleet

 

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