Kiwis join struggle against sea slavery

Disgust at physical and sexual abuse on foreign charter fishing boats has led a group of lawyers and advocates to set up a trust aimed at winning human rights protection for fishing crews.

They say they are not social workers, respite caregivers, educators or researchers.

"We are lawyers and business people who mean business. Modern slavery is dirty business and dirty law and we'll fight that. Where it gets wet, we get wild when it comes to slavery," Tauranga barrister Craig Tuck said.

Slave Free Seas - slavefreeseas.org - comes in the wake of an Auckland University study into the charter business and a year-long investigation by the Sunday Star- Times.

Indonesians aboard two Korean- flagged charter boats threatened to walk off their boats last week, claiming abuse and non-payment of around $1.9 million in wages.

The Dae Hyun Agriculture and Fisheries Company boats Melilla 201 and 203 are on charter to United Fisheries Ltd of Sockton, Christchurch.

Tuck played a founding role in Slave Free Seas and says there's a groundswell of disgust over what is happening. "I realised a bunch of guys who wanted to improve themselves and their families' lot, and to put in the hard yards and do some work, were essentially being preyed upon.

"These are not people wanting a handout, or pillaging our fisheries. They are young men, brothers, sons, some of them the same age as my son, genuinely trying to contribute to their society and their families, and finding themselves in situations of utter powerlessness. They are being used and abused."

Working with the Hong Kong- based anti-people trafficking group, the Mekong Club, the New Zealand group wants people to know that slave crewing is not an economic problem.

"This is just modern slavery. It is just appalling that those who have power and wealth are preying on those who don't. I've had a gutsful."

He said many lawyers were uniting to combat the problem, which was not helped by the complexity of the industry.

A government-established ministerial inquiry is due to report in February on what can be done to end abuses around fishing.

A Christchurch company, Arendale Ltd, made submissions to the inquiry over its work with United and the two Melilla boats.

Owner Christophe Ludeke told the inquiry the problem with absconding seamen was with illegal labour agents luring them to orchards and vineyards, and said he always asked about crew welfare. "My overall impression is that the captains have been successful in providing a family-like environment for their crews," he told the inquiry.

Ludeke said his statement was correct when he made it two months ago, but since early October three Melilla crews had deserted, allegedly due to the lack of wages, poor conditions and abuse.

Asked about the crews now threatening to walk off, he said: "I think there are issues that need to be clarified. The only comment I will make is that at no time in my involvement with the crew did they allege any physical or sexual impropriety. This has come out of the blue, and I'd have thought if such actions were going on, I'd have heard about it."

In 2008 the Melilla owners were fined $380,000 when convicted of "trucking" - taking fish from one area and claiming it was caught in another. The ships then were not working for United.

None of United's shareholders responded to a request for comment.

TOUGH TIMES ON THE WATER / News, page 6

Sunday Star Times