Indonesian fishermen claim exploitation

UNFAIR: Indonesian workers claim they have a very difficult life, while the Spanish officers live a life of comparative ease.
UNFAIR: Indonesian workers claim they have a very difficult life, while the Spanish officers live a life of comparative ease.

It was a question that could have been put more elegantly but the answer illustrates a South Pacific fishing scandal.

There were eight Indonesians, anxious but polite, sitting in a small motel room in Whangarei, some distance away from two European-flagged fishing boats in port.

"We know that we are the poorest paid of all the fishermen in the world," one of them said.

They earn US$325 (NZ$388) a month - below the New Zealand minimum wage - and get catch bonuses that most would view as trivial.

We agreed not to use names; the hard men in Jakarta who sent them off to sea would blacklist them and could punish their families.

I met them outside a chainlink fence surrounding Ship Repair NZ on Port Road, Whangarei, just after sunset when they were allowed ashore.

Their European Union-subsided Spanish-flagged ship Carmen Tere was on the slip. Its Portuguese sister, Artico,was at a nearby wharf, guarded by a barrel-chested, shirtless, silent man.

Around 30 Indonesians worked on the two and many of them had been on one or the other for over 60 days straight. Even within walking distance of supermarkets and fastfood, they were fed the same meal each day: fish bait - frozen pieces of mackerel and squid.

I asked them, through a Bahasi Indonesia interpreter, whether they liked fish bait.

I received a look of disbelief that said: how could this man ask something so stupid? They laughed politely and one said the officers did not eat it.

"They eat Spanish food." Meat, fresh fish, pasta. Sometimes the crew get leftovers if the officers agree.

That is not the only deprivation aboard this boat. The Indonesians are not allowed clean fresh drinking water. They take it from a rusted ship tank.

"It is yellow and it smells." The officers drink bottled water.

"Why are only the Spanish people drinking from the bottle," one says.

They have to wash "out of the sea".

New Zealand's 360 kilometre exclusive economic zone (EEZ) fishery has been dominated by foreign charter vessels, mainly Koreans fishing Maori quota.

It's now a matter of record that the industry was rife with slavery, and the Indonesians were subjected to severe physical and human rights abuses.

Men died, ships sank and New Zealand's reputation for wholesome seafood products suffered.

The Government has said it will put a stop to this by reflagging foreign vessels to New Zealand flags by 2016 (with notable exceptions - including boats chasing lucrative bluefin tuna), so that crews will get New Zealand wages and conditions. The bill has not yet passed.

Carmen Tere and Artico are not working the EEZ; they are part of a European armada that, in the wake of the North Atlantic and Mediterranean fisheries collapse, are now heading to the South Pacific.

Carmen Tere and Artico are owned by Angelsonia Pesca SL in Lugo, Spain. They operate out of Auckland and Napier. The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) said they were licensed by their flag states to take swordfish and tuna outside the NZ EEZ.

Carmen Tere has a license to off-load its catch in Auckland and Napier and Artico in Papeete, French Polynesia. Neither is licensed to fish in New Zealand's EEZ, but the crew - who have never been interviewed by New Zealand authorities - tell a different story.

The crew agreed they were taking Pacific bluefin tuna, which is illegal as it is an endangered species, and showed on mobile phones a couple of large bluefin tuna (around 200kg) that are worth around $200 a kilo.

The crew thought they were near New Zealand at the time, saying they saw New Zealand-flagged vessels and twice they saw helicopters. "We are workers; we do not know."

When they took bluefin it was separately processed, marked and stored where it could be easily dumped. "If the patrol comes, we dump it."

In August they were boarded by the New Zealand Navy - a fact confirmed by MPI deputy director general Scott Gallacher. He says it was on the high seas, meaning it was outside the EEZ.

The crew said there was bluefin tuna on board, but it was not found. When they reached Auckland the catch was transferred to a container "and sent to Spain".

They say an inspector boarded the ship in Auckland but "did not talk to the crew. They talk to the Spanish."

Gallacher said MPI regularly monitors Carmen Tere. "There was no evidence of non-compliance by the vessel."

New Zealand's role in the operation is to allow crews to be flown into Auckland from Indonesia, issuing visitor visas to allow them to move from the airport to the ship.

The fishermen say a man they called "Eduardo" met them in Auckland, took their passports and their Indonesian employment contracts, and put them on the ship.

Faced with mistreatment and poor or no wages, the crew told me there was a high turnover, including men jumping ship in Auckland.

As the ship retains their passports the men are now undocumented and in New Zealand. The official word from Carmen Tere is that the discrepancies in crew numbers are because crew have transferred at sea to Artico and will return via Tahiti.

Most of the crews are in debt bondage. They had to borrow the 4.5 million rupaihs (NZ$465) that the agent demanded to find them work.

Three of them had serious accidents in the last voyage and have permanent numbness to arms and hands. They have scars but tell of how they asked for medical treatment. "Captain just laughed," one said.

They keep asking, but were always told "tomorrow, tomorrow." One man went 25 days before his wound was treated.

When the fish are running crews have to keep working without a break - 16 hours or so at a time with just an hour or two rest between.

Trips can take the men out into the Pacific for 60 to 80 days at a time. The calls back to Papeete and Auckland are brief. "Never seen a girl for two years," said one of the men.

Carmen Tere and Artico earlier this month sailed into Whangarei's inner-harbour to be slipped for survey and repairs.

Most crews of slipped boats are put into motels; but not this crew. They were made to stay aboard and not allowed off until 7pm. They could then walk 4km to the shops, but they have almost no money. While in Whangarei, with no fish to catch, they are not paid.

Instead, they chip and paint their ship; working alongside paid New Zealanders. Ship Repair NZ did not respond to messages and emails for comment.

MPI's Gallacher says the two ships do not fall under New Zealand law and are not subject to New Zealand laws.

The crews had visitor permits but were allowed to work "regardless of its location (ie in port or on the high seas)." He says all seven Carmen Tere off-loads were yellowfin tuna, not the banned bluefin. Transhipments at sea are authorised by Spain, Gallacher said.

Accusations that the ship was fishing in the NZ EEZ and had dumped illegally caught fish, were put to MPI. The ministry responded: "MPI would welcome any evidence Mr Field may be able to provide regarding the vessel fishing while transiting the NZ EEZ and the vessel dumping fish."

Angelsonia Pesca, owner of the two vessels, has a small office in Lugo. The man who answered the phone each time the Sunday Star-Times called said it was untrue that the crews were underpaid.

He seemed surprised that we had copies of their contracts.

"The ship is a Spanish flag," he said in response to a suggestion that the crews were paid well below New Zealand wages. In other words, our rules did not apply.


When the ageing rusted Korean fishing boat Oyang 70 sank off the Otago coast in 2010, killing five crew and its captain who went down with it, New Zealand's fishing secret was exposed.

Exclusive economic zone quota – much of it granted to Maori iwi – was being exploited by foreign charter vessels (FCVs) manned by near slave labour from South East Asia.

Sunday Star-Times and University of Auckland Business School investigations have since revealed a horror story of physical and human rights abuse that have caused great embarrassment to New Zealand internationally.

The US State Department cited the industry as guilty of human trafficking – and in one report compared the way runaway sailors were treated with that of black slaves in the Southern United States in the 19th century.

After a ministerial inquiry the Government introduced requirements that all FCVs be reflagged to New Zealand by 2016 – and complying with laws here.

After select committee hearings the bill has been modified to give iwi an exception to use FCVs – and after a brief uproar the bill remains unpassed.

Abused crews are still jumping ship in New Zealand and the scandal continues. 

Sunday Star Times