New Zealand Forces Re-Flag of Fishing Fleet

fishing boat

By MarEx 2016-06-01 11:28:18

Over the last decade, the New Zealand fishing industry has been shaken by a series of high profile allegations of the abuse and exploitation of foreign crews working on foreign fishing vessels within New Zealand’s waters. Following a series of non-legislative measures, the Government of New Zealand has responded with the Fisheries (Foreign Charter Vessels and Other Matters) Amendment Act, which came into force on May 1, 2016.

The human rights issues came to a head in 2011 when Indonesian crew from a number of South Korean vessels walked off their vessels citing non-payment of wages, as well as accounts of physical, mental and sexual abuse. Crew members were routinely required to work 18 to 20 hours per day. In reality they were on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the length of their contract which was typically two years.

Slave Free Seas

The human rights organization Slave Free Seas reports that extreme shifts were not uncommon during heavy fishing periods. For example, one crew member worked 48 hours before falling asleep at the gutting table. Another crew member recalled working 53 hours without a break for sleep. He was permitted a three hour break and then was required to work a further 20 hours. 

Crew members were denied overtime wages and evidence showed the systematic underpayment of wages based on fraudulent practices including false timesheets, denial of overtime hours worked, improper contracting and false declarations of compliance with work visa conditions, says Slave Free Seas. False wage payment declarations were produced to circumvent the New Zealand minimum wage requirement.

Slave Free Seas was formed in 2011 to fight modern day slavery at sea. Since its formation, SFS has assisted 480 Indonesian fishermen who are collectively owed in the vicinity of $25 million by their South Korean employers. 

Human Rights at Sea

The charity Human Rights at Sea has prepared a case study on the situation citing statistics that indicate approximately 40 percent of squid exported from New Zealand has been caught on a vessel using forced labor, as well as 15 percent of Hoki exports and eight percent of Southern Blue Whiting. 

The scale of the endemic exploitation of foreign workers is well illustrated by litigation
currently pending against industry giant Dong Won Fisheries, states Human Rights at Sea. Over 200 Indonesian fishermen who worked off New Zealand are currently suing their former employers for almost $14 million in unpaid wages. The sailors allege that they received less than $600 a month, despite working an average of 12 hours a day, and 20 hour shifts during peak season. While operating on only four hours sleep the workers were often physically and verbally abused by their supervisors.


Human Rights at Sea reports that nine vessels have been re-flagged and three are in the process of reflagging and cannot fish in New Zealand waters until they have done so. The Government has issued a statement explaining that nine further vessels have decided not to continue fishing in New Zealand waters. The nine that had reflagged are from Japan, Korea, Ukraine and the Commonwealth of Dominica.

The Government maintained that reflagging was the only measure that went far enough to guarantee protection. The Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, remained adamant on this point, recently re-emphasizing that the Government believes “Reflagging will place foreign charter vessels under the responsibility and control of New Zealand. It will hold domestic operators accountable for the employment of crew, ensuring that New Zealand’s criminal law applies in full and will resolve possible trade issues and reputational concerns.”

Guy says once vessels are flagged to New Zealand, the full range of New Zealand law including employment relations and workplace health and safety law will automatically apply and be enforceable.

The move was not without risk, says Human Rights at Sea. Foreign chartered vessels make up about $302 million of New Zealand's annual $1.53 billion seafood exports, and the government has previously acknowledged that the shift will have "uncertain economic impacts" such as losing access to vessels with a lower value attached to the annual catch entitlement, and increased operating costs causing smaller domestic companies to become unprofitable.

The Human Rights at Sea case study is available here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.