'Under paid' fishermen seek $6.6m

WAGES ACTION: The Sur Este 700 alongside at the Timaru Port.
WAGES ACTION: The Sur Este 700 alongside at the Timaru Port.

Poorly paid crews aboard three South Korean fishing boats working New Zealand waters for below the minimum wage are to go to the Employment Court claiming $6.6 million.

Eighty-seven Indonesian crewmen worked on vessels owned by Dong Nam Fisheries Ltd and chartered to Timaru company South East Resources Ltd, targeting low-value fish quota off the South Island.

All three boats involved, Sur Este 700, 707 and 709, have histories of facing various fishing and employment transgressions.

The Indonesians have claimed before the Employment Relations Authority that Dong Nam failed to keep accurate time records, breached employment agreements and failed to pay New Zealand's minimum wage.

Authority member David Appleton said it is also asserted that the men had been on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week while at sea and were entitled to be paid for all that time.

Appleton ordered the case to be heard by the Employment Court because it involved important points of law.

"This is a case where a substantial sum of money is being sought by a significant number of employees, the majority of whom will speak little or no English and ... none of whom reside in New Zealand."

An investigation by the authority to examine the case would take 25 days of hearing, Appleton said.

Investigations by the University of Auckland Business School and Fairfax Media have highlighted frequent human rights and labour problems aboard Dong Nam vessels.

As a result of a ministerial inquiry that followed, the Government has decided to end the use of foreign charter vessels (FCVs), which will have to reflag to New Zealand and follow laws here.

The bill has not passed yet.

During the inquiry South East owner Murray Williamson said his company had acquired 23,000 tonnes of annual catch entitlement, worth $13m a year. Its operation depended totally on FCVs.

Williamson said in his submission to Parliament that he had not been aware of wage problems on the vessels until crew of Sur Este 707 walked off in Timaru.

"This whole experience has been distressing to us, as we have never had any indication of crew being unhappy with their conditions," he said.

No date has been set for the Employment Court hearing.