Parliament outlaws slave-like fishing conditions

In its last act before the elections, Parliament today outlawed the practices behind slave-like fishing practices in New Zealand waters.

From May 2016, foreign charter fishing vessels (FCV) - some of which have committed human rights and labour abuses - will have to fly New Zealand flags and obey New Zealand laws.

The Fisheries (Foreign Charter Vessels and Other Matters) Amendment Bill was becalmed on Friday last week with Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy saying there was little chance of it passing into law this year.

This prompted outrage, including from some of New Zealand's leading fishing companies that use FCVs.

New Zealand's reputation would suffer, they said.

The new law followed a 2011 Fairfax Media expose Slavery at sea which, with the work of the University of Auckland Business School, revealed abuses aboard a large fleet of FCVs fishing the exclusive economic zone.

Public pressure returned the bill to Parliament last night for committee hearings and under the final act of urgency today, went through its third and final reading, needing only vice-regal signature to become law.

In a statement after the bill was passed, Guy said it would strengthen the regulation of foreign-owned commercial fishing vessels operating in New Zealand waters.

"This bill will help maintain our reputation around the world," Guy said.

"It shows that we are serious about the fair treatment of fishing crews, the safety of vessels and New Zealand's international reputation for ethical and sustainable fishing practices."

The new law will give government agencies full jurisdiction over areas including employment and labour conditions on fishing vessels.

"It will help ensure fair standards for all fishing crews working in our waters," Guy said.

The bill was partially opposed by the Maori Party and several iwi, who use FCVs to fish their Treaty of Waitangi quotas.

In the only third-reading speech today, Maori Party co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell defended the party's position, saying the bill had not been black or white. Conflicts had arisen and compromises had been made to get the bill passed.

The Maori Party had zero tolerance for companies that exploited workers or did not follow the rules, he said.

Maori had been given quota under fisheries settlements so that they could return to the fishing business.

"But the quota that was delivered to iwi through the settlement process failed, really, to give each individual iwi an innate ability to run economic fishing operations across the whole value chain."

Maori wanted more time to get into the business.

"It was certainly never to dodge our obligations," Flavell said.

"Iwi are certainly not opposed to ensuring that workers' rights are safeguarded, but what they were asking for is lead-in time to be able to implement the changes."

Maori, with high unemployment rates, wanted to be in the fishing industry.

"But I say this: we are not about to be bullied or silenced into raising the issues that whanau, hapu, and iwi have raised with us, and in a due and proper process."

Flavell said allegations of human rights abuses on the ships were never proven.

"It was [iwi leader's] absolute belief that the legislation that evolved was an approach that was sort of like a sledgehammer to a peanut."

The Green Party said the legislation ensured the end of a shameful era of human rights abuses under successive governments and several fishing companies.

"Human rights and proper monitoring of our fisheries should have been the norm, but sadly it has taken a ministerial inquiry and years of struggle to get to where we are today," Green Party fisheries spokesman Steffan Browning said today.

"This legislation deals with a stain on New Zealand's international reputation regarding working conditions.

"We hope that New Zealand contributes to eliminating the abuse of fishers and crew throughout the Pacific and beyond."

The Green Party also congratulated the reporters, human rights groups, churches, unions, academics and individuals that exposed the abuses on foreign chartered vessels.