Likely 'thousands' of migrant slaves in New Zealand: Expert

Faroz Ali was found guilty as New Zealand's first human trafficker.
CHRIS MCKEEN/FAIRFAX NZ

Faroz Ali was found guilty as New Zealand's first human trafficker.

At 49 years old, Fijian woman Suliana Vetanivula dreamed of a better life for herself, her taxi driver husband and her seven daughters. 

When she saw advertisements in the Fiji Sun newspaper for Fijians to work in New Zealand and Australia, it presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally make some money for her family. 

Her husband earned just a few hundred dollars a week, but at the insistence of the Fijian travel agents who placed the ad, Vetanivula handed over thousands of dollars to get what she believed was a golden ticket - a New Zealand work visa. 

Stand Against Slavery chief executive Peter Mihaere estimates there are thousands of migrants being exploited in New Zealand.
MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ

Stand Against Slavery chief executive Peter Mihaere estimates there are thousands of migrants being exploited in New Zealand.

She borrowed the money from friends and family, comfortable in the knowledge that she would be earning high wages as a fruit picker in New Zealand. 

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It was a decision that would haunt her. 

Fijians were promised high wages in return for fruit picking.
LOUIE DOUVIS

Fijians were promised high wages in return for fruit picking.

Vetanivula gave evidence in the High Court at Auckland against Faroz Ali, who was found guilty on Thursday of 15 counts of human trafficking - the first such conviction in New Zealand.

She explained how when she arrived in New Zealand she was aghast to find herself living in cramped, cold conditions.

Promises of meals, accommodation and high wages never transpired. 

The man who collected her and a few others off the bus at Tauranga, only known as 'Tauranga Ali,' chastised the group for not bringing linen and bedding with them. 

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'Tauranga Ali"s real name is Jafar Kurisi, an associate of Faroz Ali. 

On their first night in Tauranga, Vetanivula and three others shared a mattress at their accommodation and they had to buy their own blankets. 

They were never paid for hours of fruit picking at a local orchard, despite repeated attempts to seek their wages. 

Meanwhile, Kurisi insisted they owed him money. 

At one stage he brought the workers a cooked chicken to eat while they worked, and charged them $25 each for the pleasure. 

In his opening address to the jury, prosecutor Luke Clancy described Vetanivula as "someone not to be trifled with", and it was true. 

Despite admitting this was her first experience overseas and having never worked in New Zealand before, she knew in her gut she and the others were being used. 

It wasn't long before she confided in a local church woman and authorities became involved. 

Vetanivula flew back to Fiji embarrassed and broke. 

That was two years ago but she says she still feels the affects of being lured into working illegally, with promises of golden opportunities. 

"When I went back to Fiji people tend to look at me differently," she told the court. 

After hours of giving evidence in a strong, even manner, this was when Vetanivula broke down. 

"Because I didn't have any money to pay them back ... I struggled with my husband. I still owe a lot of money to a lot of people. When I go out I feel ashamed to see them because when I needed help, they were ready to help me and in return, I didn't do my part. 

"I felt like I was not wanted in the village. Everybody thinks I've stolen money from them because whenever anybody comes back from [working in] New Zealand and Australia they have a lot of money." 

LANDMARK CASE 

Ali was found guilty on Thursday of 15 counts of human trafficking, and 16 of aiding and abetting people to remain in the country unlawfully. 

He is the first person to be found guilty in a New Zealand court of trafficking people. 

His wife and sister-in-law were running the travel shop in Fiji that made the promises of excellent pay in New Zealand. 

Ali's lawyer Peter Broad told the court that separated by the Pacific Ocean, Ali had no way of knowing what promises were being made to the workers. 

He argued that his role was simply to meet the Fijian newcomers at the airport and find them work, either at his own gib-stopping business in south Auckland, or at Bay of Plenty orchards with Tauranga Ali. 

The jury disagreed. 

Ali now faces up to 20 years in prison. 

The four-week trial was just the second human trafficking case to reach trial in New Zealand, following on the heels of the Nelson trial of Jaswinder Singh Sanga and Satnam Singh, who were subsequently acquitted. 

The alleged premise in that case was similar.

The two men were accused of encouraging 18 Indian nationals of forking over tens of thousands on the promise of two-year work visas and jobs in Blenheim. 

The Crown case against Ali was that he arranged for 15 Fijians to be brought to New Zealand for the purpose of having those people work for him or his contact in Tauranga. 

Although the workers were promised working visas, they actually received tourist visas, and were told to lie at the border, the court heard. 

MODERN-DAY SLAVERY 

Stand against Slavery chief executive Peter Mihaere said the Ali trial was a classic example of what "modern-day slavery" looks like. 

The word 'slavery' jars with people, he said - the more commonly used term is exploitation. 

There are no solid statistics on slavery or trafficking in New Zealand. At best, Mihaere estimates there are thousands of migrants being exploited in the country. 

Most recently a United States report declared New Zealand a "destination" for forced labour and sex trafficking. 

When Mihaere describes his work with the organisation, "a layer back from frontline services", people expect he works in countries like Thailand and India. 

No, he tells them, he works in New Zealand. 

He says exploitation of migrants can be seen not just in industries like horticulture or agriculture, but child care, elder care, courier companies and cleaning agencies. 

The workers are not just from Asia or India, they're from South America too, he says.

Mihaere is working with a University of Auckland researcher to pull together what will be the country's first in-depth study on the topic. 

They're hoping to release their report by the end of the year. 

It's been an incredibly challenging three years of research for the pair. Many victims of slavery were too scared to come forward, Mihaere says. 

He's hoping that Ali's conviction will bring new awareness for businesses and citizens, which should eventually propel New Zealand toward being the first nation in the world to be slave-free. 

"I'd love the government to have a goal like that," he says. 

"We've got to resource up. Somehow the budget discussions at central government have to include a reasonable amount of budget for this. I'm not saying billions and billions of dollars but we do need to do better than we're doing now." 

At a community level, he said, industries need to have their eyes wide open in terms of ensuring their workers are legitimate and consumers need to be picky about the products and services they buy. 

 - Stuff

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