Gov under fire for failure to pass slave fishing bill

A parliamentary bill that would have outlawed slave fishing in New Zealand has failed to pass into law raising fears the country's international reputation for providing safe food is again at risk.

A leading church group has today joined human rights and political advocates to express alarm over the failure of the bill.

"Parliament is running out of time to take a major step towards ending slavery of foreign crews in New Zealand waters," Reverend Jolyon White from the Anglican Social Justice Unit says.

The bill followed a 2011 Fairfax Media expose "Slavery at sea" which revealed appalling human and labour rights abuses aboard a large fleet of foreign charter vessels (FCVs) fishing the exclusive economic zone.

One of the biggest users of FCVs, Maori half owned Sealord, denied lobbying to delay, saying the longer the delay "the greater the risk to reputational damage".

An influential London based anti-slavery group says failure to pass the bill means the "New Zealand fishing industry will be tainted by association with the criminal practices of a few abusive actors."

After the appalling practices were exposed, particularly by the Auckland University Business School, the government sent up a joint ministerial inquiry.

After its findings came out Prime Minister John Key pledged to end the abuse and make the boats fly New Zealand flags by 2016.

One year and nine months after the introduction of the Fisheries (Foreign Charter Vessels and Other Matters) Amendment Bill, Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy admitted this week that despite cross-party support it would not get through Parliament this term.

Labour's fisheries spokesman Damien O'Connor said they could pass the bill easily in a couple of hours next week.

"This is really bad for New Zealand's reputation."

Green Party spokesman Stefan Browning said the delay will concern people around the world.

"The reputational damage continues until they do they right thing. While they have made some changes there are people still hurting, there are people who deserve recompense."

Business school researcher Glenn Simmons says it's disgraceful the bill has not passed.

"Knowing how the industry has operated in the past, I would be very surprised if they hadn't made attempts to frustrate the passage of the bill without exemptions.... I was a little bit optimistic that we might have outgunned the industry for the first time in history," he said.

"But we are dealing with an 80 year culture that knows only one way to make money - force people to work."

The Anglican Church's White says parliament passed the Psychoactive Substances Amendment Bill in a day, for the sake of the public.

"This Fisheries Amendment Bill, to protect foreign workers in what is effectively a legal vacuum, is at day 648 since the bill was introduced."

White said New Zealand's reputation will suffer.

"International concerns about the integrity of New Zealand exports remain justified so long as the bill remains on the table....

"We owe it to victims to act as swiftly as possible and pass the bill this parliamentary term."

Sealord CEO Graham Stuart said they are worried at the delay because of the damage it will cause internationally.

"Sealord has categorically not lobbied for any delay our view is that the government should get on with the proposed reforms."

A spokesperson for Sanford Ltd, another FCV user, denied extensive lobbying.

"Sanford has simply made a public written submission on the bill."

Sanford's majority shareholder is the Goodfellow family which includes Peter Goodfellow, chairman of the National Party.

Industry group Seafood New Zealand chief executive Tim Pankhurst denied lobbying to delay the bill.

Maritime Union National Secretary Joe Fleetwood was dismayed at the failure.

"There is support from all sides of the House for this Bill."

Delays will expose fishing crews to unacceptable danger and disadvantage, as well as further damaging the commercial reputation of New Zealand's fishing industry in world markets.

Guy, through a spokesman, said that with only a week left there was not enough time to get the bill through.

"But I'm very confident that it will proceed, even with a new parliament, given the broad support it enjoys across different parties."

He said the government remained committed to having FCVs flagged to New Zealand by 2016.

"We are serious about the fair treatment of fishing crews, the safety of vessels and New Zealand's international reputation for ethical and sustainable fishing practices."

Nick Grono of the anti-slavery group The Freedom Fund said past abuses show the need for laws to halt enslavement in the fishing industry.

"Failure to pass such legislation won't make the issue go away - it will mean that the exploitation will continue, and the New Zealand fishing industry will be tainted by association with the criminal practices of a few abusive actors," he said.