Americans warned that NZ seafood tainted by slave labour

GONE: The Oyang 70.
GONE: The Oyang 70.

American business leaders are being told to ask questions about New Zealand seafood until this country addresses its reputation for using 21st-century slave labour on fishing boats.

A top diplomat, with United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beside him, said consumers did not want to buy goods "tainted by modern slavery".

At the launch in Washington of the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, US Ambassador-at-large Luis CdeBaca used a New Zealand example of modern slavery without identifying the business.

The company was Sanford Ltd of Auckland.

The report referred to and backed up year-long Sunday Star-Times and Auckland University Business School reports exposing abuse on foreign charter vessels which take most of New Zealand's deep-sea catch.

The report says the fishermen on mainly South Korean-flagged boats suffered "imposition of significant debts, physical violence, mental abuse, and excessive hours of work". Clinton said it used to be called trafficking. "But I think labelling this for what it is, slavery, has brought it to another dimension."

CdeBaca praised a Chicago chief executive, Tom Mazzetta, whose US$510 million corporation pioneered orange roughy fishing with Sanford.

As the Star-Times reported in February, Mazzetta demanded changes from Sanford after learning of slavery allegations and claims that agents in Indonesia were trying to identify whistleblowers among the crew of foreign charter vessels Sanford used.

Mazzetta wrote to Sanford's board demanding action.

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

On Thursday, CdeBaca praised Mazzetta for listening to "consumers who don't want to buy things tainted by modern slavery".

"When [Mazzetta] read a report about forced labour in the fishing industry, he wasn't just shocked. He acted."

As well as writing to Sanford, he sent an open letter to his customers, telling them his brand was his family, his family name, and he would not taint it or his customers with slavery in his supply chain.

"We're inspired by his principled stand."

The report warned Americans that seafood from slave boats in New Zealand's exclusive economic zone could end up in US shops. New Zealand exports about $180m worth of seafood to the US each year.

"Because some purchasers of fish on the international market do not monitor their supply chains for slave labour, including the crew recruitment processes and treatment of fishermen on chartered vessels, an estimated 44.9 million people directly engaged in the fishing industry will continue to remain vulnerable to human trafficking," the report says.

Sanford managing director Eric Barratt would not comment.

The report also featured an Otago Daily Times advertisement offering a $1000 reward for an Indonesian sailor, Kismo Pakistan, who fled the Oyang 70 fishing vessel in Dunedin in 2007.

Under the headline "Then and now: fleeing slavery", the ad was placed next to 18th-century US notices offering rewards for the capture of runaway slaves.

The report blanked out the name of the person who inserted the advertisement in the Otago Daily Times, but the Star-Times understands it was Pete Dawson, the Lyttelton agent for Southern Storm Fishing, charterers of the ill-fated Oyang 70.

The Oyang 70 sank in August 2010 with the loss of six men.

Immigration New Zealand said Pakistan left the country in 2008.

Paul Dwyer, group advertising manager for Allied Press, publisher of the Otago Daily Times, claimed the ad was legitimate because it was authorised by Southern Storm.

"It would take a long bow to reach the conclusion there was human slavery involved. We believe our staff acted appropriately at the time," he said.

Dawson did not respond to questions about the way the ad was highlighted in the US.

Earlier this year, at the coronial inquest into the Oyang 70 deaths, Dawson said he never heard a single complaint raised by crew of any nationality on the ship.

Sunday Star Times