Editorial: Fishing vessel code reform cannot wait

The ministerial inquiry into the operation of foreign chartered fishing vessels has confirmed what has long been obvious. The code of practice negotiated by a previous government and the fishing industry to protect foreign crews in New Zealand waters is not worth the paper it is written on.

Despite numerous allegations of assault, sexual assault, and other human rights abuses, not a single prosecution or investigation has been launched by police. Despite numerous allegations of under-payment, only a handful have been satisfactorily resolved by the Labour Department.

The ministerial panel, headed by former labour minister Paul Swain, did not investigate individual allegations of abuse or under-payment, but said it had heard testimony that backed up many of the allegations. It concluded that the issue had the potential to damage New Zealand's international standing and harm the fishing industry's reputation, a conclusion that was borne out a few days before the report was publicly released when two major United States retailers – Safeway and Wal-Mart – pledged investigations into the operations of their New Zealand suppliers.

The pledges followed a report that Indonesian crew aboard Korean-owned fishing vessels had been struck, kicked, sexually assaulted and underpaid. A newly passed Californian law requires big corporations doing business in the state to publicly disclose their efforts to monitor and combat slavery in their supply chains.

However, the major threat to New Zealand's interests is not from the Californian law but from public perceptions of this country in overseas markets. The code of practice, signed in 2006, was supposed to set minimum conditions on foreign chartered vessels, but in practice it has proved virtually impossible to enforce.

Responsibility for ensuring the conditions are adhered to is blurred between vessel owners and their New Zealand charterers, and the picture is further complicated by the preparedness of impoverished crew to accept less than they are legally entitled to, poor record keeping, and the activities of offshore manning agents who take a portion of wages in return for arranging jobs.

Mr Swain's inquiry has made 15 recommendations to the Government, six of which have been implemented and the rest of which are under consideration. Most critical among those still to be given effect to is that all crew employed on foreign vessels should be employed directly by their New Zealand charterers to make enforcement of the law simpler. Primary Industries Minister David Carter and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson should not consider too long.

Nothing has been achieved to date by governments tip-toeing around the issue. Foreign chartered vessels are a useful component in the industry mix. They generate almost $300 million of export earnings and enable under-capitalised quota holders to benefit from their holdings. However, they are not so important that the country should turn a blind eye to human rights abuses or the damage they are doing to its reputation.