Whistleblower in hiding after 'slavery' storm

A day after New Zealand's second biggest fishing company was named in charter fishing boats slavery claims, an Indonesian whistleblower went into hiding, fearing for his safety.

As Sanford Ltd's Eric Barratt issued a press release saying they had identified the whistleblower, his company got a tough warning from the largest importer of New Zealand fish in the US, Mazetta Company.

"Leadership requires taking responsibility, and in light of this information changes must be made for Mazzetta Company to continue its relationship with Sanford," chief executive Tom Mazzetta said.

The whistleblower, with the help of the US Embassy in Jakarta, has been moved to a safe house. It is the latest development in a year-long Sunday Star-Times investigation and a University of Auckland Business School study which has found severe abuse occurs on mainly Korean-flagged foreign charter vessels (FCVs), crewed by South East Asians.

An American journalist specialising in modern slavery, E Benjamin Skinner, filed an extensive report on New Zealand for the world's biggest business magazine, Bloomberg Businessweek.

The 4000-word story focused on the Korean-flagged Melilla 203, fishing for Christchurch's United Fisheries, and Dong Won 519, fishing for Sanford.

Two crew, Yusril and Ruslan (whose names were changed to protect their identity), were injured on Melilla and spoke to Skinner.

"I was a slave, but then I became useless to the Koreans, so they sent me home with nothing," Ruslan said in Monday's story.

Two years earlier, Yusril had worked on the Dong Won 519, where he alleged Korean officers hit him in the face with fish, and the boatswain had repeatedly kicked him in the back for using gloves when he was sewing the trawl nets in cold weather.

The second officer would crawl into the bunk of Yusril's friend at night and attempt to rape him.

On Wednesday, Barratt said Sanford had identified "the particular crewman quoted in the article and we are interviewing other crew and officers and the independent observers on the vessels at the time".

Skinner, in Boston, later received a text message from Yusril: "strangers at my house, leaving with my family, very scared, please help." With embassy help, Yusril, his 22-year-old wife and infant son went to a safe house.

The host told the Sunday Star-Times in a Skype interview the strangers were agents from PT Indah Megah Sari (IMS), which hires crews for New Zealand FCVs.

They demanded Yusril withdraw statements he had made to Skinner.

"They told Yusril they knew everybody who is in the crew ... IMS hold the crew list on everybody who stand-up for wages."

When Barratt was asked if he was aware of the agents visiting Yusril, he repeated part of his statement saying that if necessary Sanford would commission independent investigators.

"We ... would not use any crew manning agents who we would consider not to be independent."

Yusril's safe-house host said IMS "benefit from the blood and sweat of the fishermen. They treat a person like a slave."

Mazzetta, a $510 million Chicago operation, pioneered orange roughy fishing with Sanford.

Mazzetta spoke to Sanford's board, including chairman Jeff Todd and board member and National Party president Peter Goodfellow, saying that "to say that I am extremely disappointed would be an understatement".

"[Allegations] of this nature are simply unacceptable and warrant revision of Sanford's oversight to continue in our existing relationship."

Mazzetta listed steps Sanford had to take. Sanford said there were no labour issues and it had observers on FCVs and would be "in on-going discussions" with Mazzetta.

Anti-slavery and human trafficking laws that came into effect last month in California mean US corporates must take slavery claims seriously.

A spokesman for Walmart, which sells New Zealand catch, told the Star-Times: "We have high standards for our suppliers and our expectation is that they comply with applicable laws, including our voluntary labour standards. Pending our review, we will take the appropriate action."

US supermarket chain Safeway said it was seeking urgent certification that New Zealand fish complied with California statutes on human trafficking.

Sunday Star Times