Editorial: Tackling seafaring slavery

Finally the other shoe has fallen. News came yesterday that US supermarket giants Safeway and Wal-Mart have launched investigations into slavery on foreign-crewed fishing ships in our waters.

It had to happen. For years abuses on foreign-crewed ships have been alleged by a long list of people and groups, including unions, human rights organisations, churches, fishing companies, fishermen, lawyers, academics and journalists. Written testimony by an industry expert told of pleas for help carved into workstations by crews too scared to speak.

Now a six-month investigation by Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Ben Skinner has allegedly found evidence of debt bondage on at least 10 ships that have operated in our waters.

On Friday, the New Zealand government team looking into foreign charter vessels will report back on what it has found.

The ministerial inquiry has heard the other side of the story presented by operator Southern Storm – which invited complainants to make a case to police if they have any evidence of abuse.

Sealord – 50 per cent owned by iwi and a Japanese company – issued similar denials and claimed some fish would remain uncaught if it weren't for the lower-waged and better equipped overseas fishermen.

The argument for lower wages could be applied to a raft of industries that are currently unprofitable in New Zealand.

But if an industry is uneconomic when it is paying proper wages, then it is surely uneconomic, full stop. For the good of us all, that's not negotiable.

That's an attitude long pooh-poohed by the proponents of a borderless, one-big-labour-market, free-trade world. But it is now a policy actively supported by American supermarket chains that buy our produce. So it may be worth a second look.

Some parties with little love for foreign charters concede there is a need for them, as there just aren't enough Kiwis currently available to do the job.

The same situation may apply to the technology involved in landing some species.

If they are a necessary evil then there must be provision for paying their crews properly and securely, and there must be independent observers on all ships.