Inquiry 'will get to bottom' of foreign fishing vessel issues

Scrutinised: The Oyang 75.
Scrutinised: The Oyang 75.

The Government is taking a ministerial inquiry in to alleged slavery conditions on board foreign fishing vessels "very, very seriously", Fisheries Minister Phil Heatley says.

Allegations of "disturbing levels of inhumane conditions" on board some vessels are contained in a report by Auckland University academics, set to be formally released on Thursday.

Reports on the alleged abuse led to the announcement last month of a joint ministerial inquiry led by Heatley and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson.

Heatley this morning said the terms of reference for the inquiry would be released "in due course" but he would not comment on individual cases.

Ministers had been given assurances by Maritime Safety and the Department of Labour that they would "jump very quickly" on any breaches, particularly if they were serious, he said.

"And we expect them to do that, but in terms of the inquiry we're taking a much broader approach," Heatley said.

"I know authorities have been involved from day one, as soon as the allegations first arose and I'm confident that authorities are well-versed in what the situation is and addressing it."

The inquiry was being taken "very, very seriously" by Cabinet, he said.

A range of groups had contacted the Government about "issues to do with foreign fishing vessels".

"There is a range of issues regarding the use of foreign fishing crews. We want to get to the bottom of the situation and make sure that the rules currently are being adhered to, or if in fact they need to be improved in some way," Heatley said.

The Auckland University report covers alleged human rights abuses suffered by 2000 men from 27 foreign fishing boats in New Zealand's exclusive economic zone. It focuses on the deaths of six men in the 2010 sinking of the

Oyang 70, which went down off Dunedin's coast while fishing iwi quota, and on the conditions on its replacement vessel the Oyang 75.

The authors say they found "disturbing levels of inhumane conditions" on board foreign vessels.

The company at the centre of most of the allegations, Sajo Oyang Corporation, has rejected the claims, although it admits cannot afford to pay New Zealand minimum wages to crews.

FISHING COMPANY REFUTES CLAIMS

Sajo Oyang Corporation spokesman Glenn Inwood said the claims of abuse were "ludicrous and bizarre".

Both the Sunday Star-Times and an Auckland University report - which focuses on the deaths of six men in the 2010  sinking of the Oyang 70 off Dunedin - reveal extensive abuses on the 27 foreign charter vessels (FCVs) in New Zealand waters.

The Sunday Star-Times reported Oyang had paid private investigators to find out where information about the on-board conditions was coming from, that investigators followed the United States' trafficked persons ambassador Luis CdeBaca when he visited Auckland in June, and that a Fairfax Media car had been broken into and a bluetooth kit that logs calls stolen.

Inwood said today the claims were "nothing short of scurrilous and outrageous". Oyang and its lawyers had been contacted, but the allegations put to it were "regarded as ludicrous and bizarre".

He said the "biased nature" of past articles meant the company chose not to respond, and that Oyang did not hire investigators to track anyone.

Oyang ships were operated by Southern Storm Fishing and, far from being a "shell company", the relationship between the two was "entirely contractual'', he said.

Meanwhile, the 32-man crew of the Oyang 70's replacement ship, Oyang 75, who walked off protesting abuses face deportation.

They are in Christchurch trying to get money owed to them, but Immigration Minister Kate Wilkinson wants them deported, despite a request from Labour MP Darien Fenton.

Wilkinson said Immigration had investigated Oyang 75 and its findings had been given to Southern Storm.

"Should any wages be determined to be in arrears the Department of Labour will work with the charter company to ensure they are placed in an agreed account."

She said if any crew needed to provide evidence in the future her department would consider giving them a visa to return.

"Immigration served the crew deportation notices because their reason for remaining has ceased to exist," Wilkinson said. "I expect the crew to arrange to leave at the earliest opportunity."

She said an audit into labour practices on the Oyang 75 had been completed and given to Southern Storm.

In the Auckland University study crews and families in two Asian countries were interviewed and dozens of files obtained using the Official Information Act. It also alleges New Zealand officials are routinely lied to over wages and conditions.

- Stuff, Auckland Now