Human trafficking, exploitation 'rife' in New Zealand - Peter Mihaere

Peter Mihaere, CEO of Stand Against Slavery, outside the Nelson Courthouse where he observed all 31 days of New ...
MARION VAN DIJK

Peter Mihaere, CEO of Stand Against Slavery, outside the Nelson Courthouse where he observed all 31 days of New Zealand's first human trafficking trial.

Human trafficking, slavery and worker exploitation is said to be 'rife' in New Zealand. Peter Mihaere, of the organisation Stand Against Slavery, says the government must do more to combat the growing problem, which is putting the country's economy and international reputation at risk.

Peter Mihaere sat through every day of New Zealand's first human trafficking trial in the High Court at Nelson.

As the CEO of Stand Against Slavery, a social change organisation based in Auckland, he was a passive observer with a personal interest in the case.

Even after hearing all of the evidence over 31 days, he could not predict which way the jury would sway.

On Saturday, the day after the jury retired, Mihaere simply said: "The truth was in the courtroom. The question is, have the right people heard it?"

On Sunday morning, the jury delivered its verdicts. Jaswinder Singh Sangha, an Indian refugee living in Motueka, was found not guilty of 10 charges of arranging the entry of people into New Zealand by coercion or deception.

The charges formed the basis of New Zealand's first human trafficking prosecution. 

His brother Satnam Singh, a New Zealand resident, was jointly accused of five of those charges. The jury also found him not guilty on all counts.

They allegedly convinced 18 Indian nationals to pay about $33,000 each on the promise of two-year visas and jobs in New Zealand, which never eventuated.

READ MORE: Brothers found not guilty of New Zealand's first human trafficking charges

Mihaere said the verdicts were disappointing, but the landmark case served as a "warning to would-be exploiters" that New Zealand authorities will investigate and prosecute cases of alleged human trafficking and exploitation.

Brothers Jaswinder Singh Sanga and Satnam Singh were found not guilty of New Zealand's first human trafficking-related ...
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

Brothers Jaswinder Singh Sanga and Satnam Singh were found not guilty of New Zealand's first human trafficking-related charges.

He said human trafficking, slavery and worker exploitation was "rife" in New Zealand, particularly in the viticulture, horticulture, agriculture and dairy industries.

The investigation and prosecution of New Zealand's first human trafficking case was the "tip of the iceberg", he said, and the country has a more pervasive problem lurking beneath the surface.

"I think New Zealanders need to understand how wide it is and, predominantly in New Zealand, it's labour-related people trafficking," Mihaere said.

"I'm just keen to see New Zealand wake up to the reality and I'm keen for people to start saying slavery, exploitation, human trafficking isn't just something that happens 'over there, overseas'. It's happening in our own backyard. We actually need to clean up our own backyard."

The 2014 Global Slavery Index estimated that there were 600 people living in modern slavery in New Zealand. Australia has an estimated 3000 and India an estimated 14 million people living in modern slavery.

The main way exploitation happened in New Zealand was through the outsourcing of labour to contractors and recruitment agencies, Mihaere said.

This was common for seasonal work in vineyards and orchards.

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Mihaere said there were cases of contractors targeting vulnerable people - migrant workers, international students - and paying them at a reduced rate while charging the vineyard or orchard owner the standard amount. The contractor would pocket the difference.

Mihaere said orchard owners in New Zealand had told him that what contractors or recruitment agencies did was not their problem.

"Sorry, I don't buy that," he said. "That's no longer an excuse here in New Zealand. You cannot just say it's not my problem when, in fact, you are inadvertently or otherwise part of the problem."

Nelson Seasonal Employers Association chairman Paul Heywood said the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme was "strictly controlled" and monitored by up to four government departments. "We're very jealous about upholding standards in our region," he said.

However, he was aware of other schemes where it was possible to "come in the backdoor" and said he does not have much faith in contractors.

Heywood said he shared Mihaere's concerns about allegations of exploitation within the industry.

There were also reports of foreign workers paying "agents" thousands of dollars to obtain visas and jobs in New Zealand.

The other way New Zealanders were complicit in international trafficking, exploitation and slavery was through their appetite for bargains, Mihaere said.

"All exploitation in New Zealand or around the world, its primary ingredient is greed.

"For some reason society believes that it should get more for less and so we drive that behaviour in society by demanding more for less."

He said buying "two t-shirts for five bucks" in New Zealand meant that someone, somewhere was being exploited to produce them.

Mihaere said New Zealand's first human trafficking trial revealed that the government needed to invest more money and resources into investigating complaints.

If it failed to do so, New Zealand's economy and international reputation could be damaged, he said.

"I think the New Zealand government actually needs to allow more resources for this, it needs to come up higher on their priority list," he said.

"Around the world, groups like the European Union and others are starting to build into their contracts that you need to have clean supply chains, you need to make sure that your welfare for people is high, and if it isn't they can cancel contracts."

How to report migrant exploitation
- Contact the Labour Contact Centre on 0800 20 90 20 to discuss your situation. An interpreter can be arranged to assist with your call.
- Call your local police.
- Call 111 if it is an emergency.
- Call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or complete an online Crimestoppers form to report a case anonymously.

 - Stuff

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