Korean fishing firm faces fraud and abuse case

Korea's largest fishing company, the Sajo Oyang Corporation, faces charges of fraud and the physical and sexual abuse of Indonesian crew working in New Zealand waters.

Documents obtained by the Sunday Star-Times show that the Korea Coast Guard wants to press charges against the company's chief executive, two Korea-based managers and the company's manning agent for forgery of wage documents, fraudulently using and abetting the use of the documents and obstructing official duties.

Thirty-two Indonesian crew walked off the Oyang 75 and Shin Ji in Lyttelton last year claiming physical and sexual abuse by the ships' management.

The crew's bosun (manager), chief engineer, chief mate and first engineer face charges including assault, sexual assault and habitual assault.

Further charges relating to the non-payment of wages have been referred to Korea's Busan Regional Maritime Affairs and Port Office.

The documents show the company executives will not face detention but could face fines. Legal action against the ships' managers is on hold because they are at sea.

A lawyer for Sajo Oyang denied charges had yet been laid.

"I am instructed that as far as my client is aware, no charges have been laid against it. The Korean legal system differs to the New Zealand system in that it is not the police, coast guard or other authority (except public prosecutors) that lay charges. Rather they investigate matters and may decide to remit them to the public prosecutors office. The public prosecutors then further investigate the matter and it is in their sole discretion whether charges are laid."

Ongoing investigations by the Sunday Star-Times and Auckland University sparked a ministerial inquiry which resulted in the Government in May banning foreign-flagged fishing vessels. Chartered vessels have four years to be reflagged as New Zealand ships and meet national standards.

In June, the Department of Labour investigated payments that were supposed to be received by the Indonesian crew and commissioned an audit by PricewaterHouseCoopers. The audit was unable to verify whether wages had been paid.

The Korea Coast Guard believes telegraphic transfers provided to the department were forged. It laid charges after a complaint was filed on behalf of the crew by Korean lawyer Shin Young.

In an email from Korea, she said Sajo Oyang used the documents to get the crew to return to Indonesia on the promise their wages had been paid into a local bank account.

Young, who went to Indonesia to investigate the telegraphic transfers, said the documents were also given to New Zealand immigration officers.

"They also committed the crimes against New Zealand public officers."

Greens co-leader Russel Norman said New Zealand officials didn't appear to be taking the matter as seriously as Korean authorities.

"It suggests these companies see New Zealand as a pretty easy touch, that we are not going to enforce international labour standards properly in New Zealand so they can get away with it."

A separate document obtained by the Star-Times shows the Indonesian crew are still owed $2.17 million by Sajo Oyang.

Labour's industrial relations spokeswoman Darien Fenton said the crew came from poor backgrounds.

"They have every right to expect New Zealand would be doing a better job of recovering their money than is being done."

Information obtained by Labour shows the Government hasn't prosecuted any foreign charter vessels for minimum wage breaches since a code of practice was put in place in 2006.

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said she was concerned allegedly forged documents were presented to the department.

Any conviction for false information would be taken into account if the Sajo Oyang applied for further work visas, she said. The company would also be required to prove former workers had been paid.

Although changes to chartered vessels would require companies to have a New Zealand bank account, the Government could not force wages to be paid into that account if employees wanted to be paid in cash, Wilkinson said.

Four officers from the Oyang 75 were earlier this month fined more than $420,000 for fish dumping and filing false catch returns. The 68m trawler, worth up to US$8 million, has a forfeiture order against it but is currently overseas.

Sunday Star Times