Rule of Law

Case Study: Trafficking in New Zealand's Fishing Industry by Thomas Harré

The evidence available suggests that transnational commercial enterprises are conducting human trafficking for forced labour in New Zealand waters using methods resembling those commonly used by transnational organised crime groups. The main actors involved in this process are:

  • the foreign corporations that own the fishing vessels;
  • the New Zealand Charter Parties;
  • intermediary recruitment agencies and brokers; and
  • senior crew members working on board the vessels.

This assertion is, by its nature, an interim one only. It requires a court of competent jurisdiction to make a conviction under s 98D of the Crimes Act 1961 before a conclusion of human trafficking can be categorically reached.

These actors appear to be involved in organising and carrying out human trafficking under the cover of what initially appear to be legally straightforward fishing ventures. Broadly speaking, from the perspective of human trafficking, these ventures can be separated into stages:

  • obtaining approval in principle from the New Zealand government;
  • recruiting fishers and transporting them to New Zealand;
  • exploiting the fishers; and
  • laundering the proceeds.

If proved in court, these fishing operations appear to fulfil all of the requirements of human trafficking as required by s 98D of the Crimes Act 1961. There is transnational movement, deception and coercion, and both the intent to exploit as well as actual exploitation. The missing element has been the failure of New Zealand authorities to exercise their discretion to prosecute.

Foreign Charter Vessels (FCVs)

Since the quota management scheme began in 1986, the use of Foreign Charter Vessels (FCVs) in New Zealand waters has created a "wild west" industry. FCVs are foreign owned and flagged, but are leased by New Zealand companies to fish in New Zealand's exclusive economic zone. An FCV must be registered as a New Zealand fishing vessel before it is permitted to fish New Zealand waters.[1]

FCVs take 62 per cent of the deep ocean fishing catch, and almost the entire Maori fish quota. The catch is often sent to China for processing in factories with exploitative labour conditions, before being resold all over the world branded as "produce of New Zealand".

Sajo Oyang Corporation (Oyang) and Southern Storm Fishing 2007 Ltd (SSF)

For the purposes of this discussion, the focus will be placed predominantly on the actions of the Korean-owned Sajo Oyang Corporation (Oyang), and their associated Christchurch-registered shell company Southern Storm Fishing 2007 Ltd (SSF). This is reinforced by a search of the Companies Register, which shows the company has a single shareholder and owner. A previous manifestation of this company which has since been struck off the register, Southern Storm Fishing Ltd, was at one point partially owned by Oyang. Between 2011 and 2012, these two companies have attracted significant media attention as a result of abuses suffered by crew members on board vessels owned by Oyang and chartered by SSF. However, problems on board Oyang FCVs go back several years.[2]

Oyang 70

In June 2007 a crew member had left the Oyang 70 in Dunedin. SSF took out an advertisement in the Otago Daily Times offering a NZD 1,000 "bounty" for information about the missing crew member. Although at the time this advertisement went unnoticed in the media, it was highlighted in the 2012 TIP report for its similarities to the bounties offered by 19th century slave-owners. The Oyang 70 sank in August 2010, killing an officer and five crew members.[3]

Oyang 75

The Oyang 75 replaced the Oyang 70, however early in 2011, the crew left the boat in Lyttelton alleging abuse and non-payment of wages. After the crew left the boat, SSF alerted Immigration New Zealand seeking deportation orders in an attempt to get the crew deported from New Zealand.[4] This is a tactic that is repeatedly used internationally by traffickers who find it more convenient for victims to be simply removed from the country in order to prevent court action being taken against them. This pattern of behaviour was discussed by the ECHR in the case of Rantsev v Cyprus & Russia.[5]

Unfortunately, the government was unsupportive of the crew members, who are owed more than NZD 26,000 each in unpaid wages. This figure reflects the wage rate set out in their Indonesian contracts. In order to bring it into line with minimum wages the figure is significantly larger. Labour and Associate Immigration Minister Kate Wilkinson refused to waive the NZD 550 fee required to appeal the decision to deport the fishermen. As a result, the crew members were forced to return home.[6]

Melilla 203

Some New Zealand officials working as observers on these FCVs choose to ignore the issues they are faced with. In an interview conducted by investigative journalist Ben Skinner with a crew member on board the Melilla 203, the crew member told of whispering to a New Zealand observer to help him. The observer expressed his sympathy, but simply said it was "not my job" to help. This position will change in the early half of 2013, when the role of observers is intended to be widened to include examining labour conditions.[7]

An observer is a person appointed by the Chief Executive of the Ministry of Fisheries to "observe fishing and the transhipment, transportation, and landing of fish, aquatic life, or seaweed". While an observer only has limited powers and cannot take action to prevent labour abuses, they provide useful oversight on board otherwise unmonitored vessels.[8]

Oyang 77

Despite the government promising to take action against abuses on FCVs,[9] there is clear evidence that labour abuses are ongoing. In March 2012, the Oyang Corporation expelled the Indonesian and Filipino crew of the Oyang 77 – a sister ship to the Oyang 70 and Oyang 75 – without paying them the approximately NZD 2 million they were owed in wages. The crew were given small cash "bonuses" of NZD 4,000 as total payment for two years' continuous work. Southern Storm Fishing Ltd, the New Zealand Charter Party for the Oyang 77, had also tried unsuccessfully to have the crew of the Oyang 75 expelled before they could testify in court.[10]

Ongoing intimidation

Back at home in Indonesia, crew members face ongoing intimidation by the manning agents that hire crew to work on board foreign chartered vessels (FCVs) working in New Zealand waters. The day after Sanford -- another New Zealand company associated with Korean boat owners -- was identified as being implicated in FCV human trafficking claims, a company spokesman made a statement to the effect that the company had identified the "whistleblower" who had talked to researchers investigating slavery and human trafficking issues associated with FCVs. Shortly after this announcement, a crew member who had been interviewed contacted the journalist saying that there were "strangers at my house, leaving with my family, very scared, please help". The United States embassy in Jakarta helped the crew member escape to a safe house. Further investigation revealed that the strangers were agents from an Indonesian manning agent sent to force the crew member to publicly retract his statements about labour abuse.[11]

Regulation of industry

More recently, the National government has taken steps to regulate the industry. A 2012 ministerial inquiry recommended the government adopt 15 proposals aimed at tightening the behaviour of FCVs in New Zealand waters. The industry response to this has been less than enthusiastic.[12]

Officially, the Sajo Oyang Corporation states that they cannot afford to pay fishers minimum wage, although they have told New Zealand government officials that they are paying the regulation wages. The New Zealand fishing company Sanford argues that restrictions on the use of FCVs would be "unwarranted and counter-productive", and would "seriously hamper the future development of New Zealand's fishing industry".[13]The Chief Executive of the Maori Fisheries Trust, Peter Douglas, claims that reforms to the FCV scheme are "draconian", and are the result of "media-driven hysteria."[14]

Reported cases of fishermen who have left their vessels as a result of suffering abuse

Showing clearly that claims of hysteria are false, the table below sets out reported cases of fishermen who have left their vessels as a result of suffering abuses between 2005 and 2011.





Six Indonesian fishermen sought refuge from the Korean vessel Melilla 203 citing mistreatment.


Ten Indonesian fishermen fled the Korean vessel Sky 75 claiming physical and mental abuse.


In a later incident two Vietnamese fishermen fled Sky 75 also claiming abuse.


Four Chinese fishermen fled the Korean vessel Oyang 96 citing abuse.


Eight Indonesian fishermen fled the San Liberatore, a New Zealand owned vessel.


Crew jumped ship from the Korean vessel Melilla 201; this incident "revealed a history of death, injury and pollution on that ship and its sister ship the Melilla 203".



Nine Indonesian fishermen fled the Korean vessel Marinui claiming physical and mental abuse.


Twenty seven crew aboard the Ukranian vessel Malakhov Kurgan went on strike over a wage dispute.


Burmese crew aboard the Korean vessel Sky 75 claim abusive treatment.



Eleven Indonesian fishermen fled the Korean vessel Shin Ji claiming physical and verbal abuse and the non-payment of wages.


Four crew jump ship from the Korean vessel Melilla 201 citing abusive treatment and long shifts.



A Korean vessel, the Oyang 70 sunk with the loss of six lives. Survivors complain of physical and mental abuse aboard the vessel as well as non-payment of wages.



Seven Indonesian crew leave the Shin Ji early following the drowning of the Bosun. On returning home bonuses were withheld by the manning agent.


Dissatisfied with the insurance payment to the widow of the Bosun, the Shin Ji captain anchored at sea for almost a month refusing to fish.


Seven Indonesian crew fled the Korean vessel Shin Ji claiming physical, mental and psychological abuse as well as the non-payment of wages.


Thirty two Indonesian crew fled the Korean vessel Oyang 75 claiming physical, mental and psychological abuse, as well as the non-payment of wages.

This table has been reproduced from C Stringer, G Simmons and D Coulston "Not in New Zealand's Waters, Surely? Labour and Human Rights Abuses Aboard Foreign Fishing Vessels" 2011 New Zealand Asia Institute Working Paper 11-01 at 10 (citations omitted).

[1] M Field "Probe Exposes Fishing Underbelly" Sunday Star Times (online ed, 26 October 2011)

[2] M Field and N Matthewson "Strange Voyage of Oyang 77" (1 March 2012)

[3] 2012 TIP report: Introductory material at 19

[4] M Field "Families of Fishing Crew Face Backlash" Sunday Star Times (online ed, 8 July 2011)

[5] Rantsev v Cyprus and Russia (25965/04) First Section, ECHR 7 January 2010

[6] A Vance "Oyang Fishermen Face Deportation" (12 August 2011)

[7] B Skinner "The Fishing Industry's Cruellest Catch" Businessweek (online ed, 23 February 2012)

[8] Fisheries Act 1996, ss 223(3) and 225

[9] Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Report of the Ministerial Inquiry into the Use and Operation of Foreign Charter Vessels (February 2012) at 1

[10] M Field "Action on Fishing Abuse Escalates" (4 March 2012)

[11] M Field "Whistleblower in Hiding after 'Slavery' Storm" Sunday Star Times (online ed, 26 February 2012)

[12] Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry Report of the Ministerial Inquiry into the Use and Operation of Foreign Charter Vessels (February 2012) at 10-13

[13] M Field "Probe Exposes Fishing Underbelly" Sunday Star Times (online ed, 26 October 2011)

[14] "New Fishing Laws 'Draconian': Iwi Fishers" 3 News (online ed, 16 February 2013)

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