Deals sought to underpay fishing crews

About 480 men working on South Korean fishing boats chartered to New Zealand companies have been underpaid by about $25 million, court documents show.

An Indonesian manning agent, working for companies chartered by New Zealand blue-water fishing companies, has sent its men to central Java to persuade the seamen to settle for less money.

Despite government assurances that it would crack down on labour and human rights abuses on foreign charter vessels, no official action has been taken over underpayment of crews.

More than a third of the 1300 foreign crewmen working the exclusive economic zone are underpaid, claims before the Employment Court and the Admiralty High Court show.

Papers filed with the Employment Relations Authority say Dongwon Fishing Co shortchanged 200 Indonesian men on the Sanford fishing boats Dongwon 519, 530 and 701 and the Juham Industries vessel Pacinui.

Dongwon is a 50-50 partner with Sanford in a fish-processing operation.

The Dongwon men claim $10m, but Fairfax Media was told this week that the manning agent in Jakarta, Indah Megah Sari (IMS), is trying to cut deals that would be significantly below the New Zealand minimum wage.

IMS has called on the men to sign "peace agreements" and, in an advertisement in a local newspaper, says Dongwon 701, 530 and 519 crews who worked between June 2009 and May 2012 "can take the rest of salaries caused [by] the miscounting by Dongwon ..."

They are required to dump their legal representatives in New Zealand.

They will be paid less than they would get in New Zealand, but the Pacinui men would be guaranteed jobs on boats in New Zealand.

Some of the "peace agreements" show a crewman from one Dongwon ship settling for $19,700 when he was claiming in New Zealand $86,527 for his work.

Details of other ships and crews show much the same on Dongwon ships chartered by Sanford.

Sanford has not yet responded to requests for comment.

An interpreter working with the crews in Indonesia, Hasan Nurhasan, said the agents are working on the desperation of the men awaiting settlements.

"They want the crew to be desperate. The crew then get desperate and they then sign the peace agreements."

He said the agents were telling crews to take the lower deal because they would get it now, whereas any deal reached through the courts in New Zealand would take longer and include legal fees.

Most of the crews were unified to fight for their wages, but it was hard for them.

"This is bad for the credibility of the New Zealand legal system," Hasan said.

"The crews don't expect as much as that [$25m]. They expect justice. They want the balance of what they worked for."

Also involved in court action are crews from the Melilla 201 and 203 formally chartered to United Fisheries, of Christchurch, owned by Taejin Fisheries, of South Korea.

Unusually in this case, United is also suing Taejin.

The Melilla 201 has since been seized by the Ministry for Primary Industries for fish-dumping offences, and the officers appeared in court in February.

The vessel is at Dunedin, deteriorating badly, and may be sold.

Other ships caught up in underpayment to crews include the Sur Este 707 and 709, chartered by Timaru's South East Resources (2001) Ltd.

The Government last year introduced a bill to Parliament requiring reflagging of foreign chartered vessels to the New Zealand flag. That would mean they would be required to comply with New Zealand law.

The bill has remained low on the order paper and is now unlikely to pass into law before the general election.

Fairfax Media