Editorial: Why the special treatment?

Last updated 05:00 29/07/2013

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OPINION: It is unseemly that an already slow-dawning law change to protect migrant workers on foreign chartered vessels in our seas will be even more slowly applied when those ships are in the service of iwi quota holders.

Cases of arrant bastardry on foreign fishing vessels, spanning to the early 1990s, have gradually gained the notoriety they deserve.

It went beyond illegal fishing - although there was more than just a bait of that - and extended to the abject mistreatment of crew members.

It was a disgrace and a shame to this nation.

This was happening in our waters, under our watch, and as part of contracts with some of our businesses.

We were complicit in treatment that amounted, at its worst, to virtual slavery.

The Government, to its credit, decided in May last year to require reflagging of foreign-owned boats, effectively putting them under our laws.

This also held not only the people on the boats, but also the domestic operators who chartered them, accountable.

Outstanding, we said. The only problem appeared to be the rather lengthy transition period which meant it would not truly kick in until 2016.

The reassurance that answered this was that in the meantime bridging measures would be applied.

A strengthened code of practice would improve the lot of the seamen and accountability of their employers by setting minimum remuneration and pay standards, and putting the burden of proof on the New Zealand charter party.

Yet nobody was pretending that those measures would in themselves suffice. A law change was still needed.

But now a select committee report into the new law has determined that there will be a special exemption for Maori quota holders that have fishing ventures with foreign vessels.

They would have until 2020. And why is this?

Apparently the 1992 Sealords Treaty deal has a sanctity of its own. One which means that what is effectively human rights legislation can just wait its patience.

Iwi take the view that the special treatment is essential because otherwise Maori fishing interests guaranteed under the Sealords deal would be severely devalued.

Makes you wonder why exactly this would be, though, if the pay and conditions of those on the vessels are already in line with the minimums set by our own laws.

If it is not, and the iwi profits are even partly coming on the back of poor treatment of foreign crews, then a bit of severe devaluation is entirely in order.

The criticism has already been levelled that, in any case, the idea behind the iwi fisheries settlement wasn't to empower the hiring of super-cheap foreign crews, but to develop jobs and skills among Maori.

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ACT leader John Banks has sharply criticised what he calls the privileged treatment of some iwi quota holders in this matter, and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy has acknowledged concerns of his own.

Good. Because as things stand this does appear to be requiring less of iwi than of others - and on an issue where nobody has an excuse to behave badly.

- The Southland Times

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