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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Skinner speaks on illegal labor-servitude

Published: March 2, 2012
Section: News

E. Benjamin Skinner, award-winning author, investigative reporter and Schuster Institute fellow, published a report in Bloomberg Businessweek last week on forced labor in the New Zealand fishing industry. The report brought to light the abusive working conditions comparable to indentured servitude experienced on foreign-chartered fishing vessels in New Zealand’s waters.

When Skinner initially received a tip from a Western diplomatic source, he replied, “You’ve gotta be nuts. New Zealand? ‘100 percent pure’—that’s their tagline.” But a comprehensive report by University of Auckland Business School “uncovered numerous cases of abuse and coercion among the 2,000 fisherman on New Zealand’s 27 foreign charter vessels.”

In the six-month investigation, Bloomberg Businessweek found cases of debt bondage on at least 10 ships that have operated in New Zealand’s waters. Although national labor laws state that human trafficking is punishable in New Zealand by up to 20 years in prison, fishing company lawyers and New Zealand officials consider 12 to 200 miles offshore “murky legal territory.”

Following the story of Indonesian fisherman, Yusril, (not his actual name; Skinner changed it to protect his identity), the report exposes the conditions that was found on one of these vessels, Melilla 203. After paying a $225 fee to the agent, Yusril was rushed to sign a contract comparable to debt bondage. “In addition to the agent’s commission, Yusril would surrender 30 percent of his salary, which IMS would hold unless the work was completed. He would be paid nothing for the first three months, and if the job was not completed to the fishing company’s satisfaction, Yusril would be sent home and charged more than $1,000 for the airfare. “‘Satisfactory’ completion was left vague.” According to New Zealand law, the minimum pay is $12 per hour, but crew members were averaging $1 per hour.

On the ship on which Yusril worked, the officers “compelled the Indonesians to work without proper safety equipment for up to 30 hours straight, swearing at them if they so much as requested coffee or a bathroom break … 16-hour workdays were standard.”

Many of the companies who provide seafood to U.S. restaurants and stores buy fish from these vessels. United Fisheries, the eighth-largest seafood company in New Zealand, bought and processed fish from Melilla 203 and other suspect ships. The United States imports 86 percent of United Fisheries’ seafood. U.S. retailers that buy fish from United Fisheries include Costco and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro.

Another seafood exporter, Sanford is a “$383 million New Zealand company and the country’s second-largest seafood enterprise,” and exports to the United States through at least 16 seafood distributors, according to Sanford CEO Eric Barratt. Sanford also supplies food to Whole Foods Market. Ashley Hawkins, Whole Foods spokesperson, spoke on background. “For proprietary reasons, we cannot reveal who we source from our exclusive brand products,” Hawkins said.

Soon, grocery chains might have to reveal their sources. “Regulators are beginning to pay attention to the conditions under which that food is caught,” Skinner wrote in his report, “As of Jan. 1, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act requires that all retailers with over $100 million in global sales publicly disclose their efforts to monitor and combat slavery in their supply chains.”

The experience on the Melilla 203 was not unique. Yusril experienced similar working conditions on the Dong Won 519, sponsored by Sanford. Yusril and his crewmates experienced both physical and sexual violence.

“The thing you have to understand about the socioeconomic context here is that these individuals in these fishing villages, the only way to make a sufficient living is to get on these boats and haul fish. The alternative, frankly, is begging,” Skinner said in a phone interview with The Hoot.

“The whole thing creates a climate a fear. The only time that Yusril overcame that fear was when he was presented a document that laid out his rights.” These sources are vulnerable to recruiters who can blacklist them if they speak about their experiences.

Considering this climate of fear, Skinner admits that the biggest risk involved in investigative reporting was in protecting his sources. “We make every effort to get informed consent, but just because they gave informed consent, doesn’t mean the burden is off the journalist to protect your source. You know, the first rule of journalism is to seek truth and report it. The second rule is to do no harm. But if you forget the second one, the first one isn’t worth it.”

In response to Skinner’s report, the New Zealand government released a Foreign Charter Vessels Inquiry report, which was made public Thursday. The government has resolved to adopt a stricter stance on the operation of foreign charter vessels in New Zealand waters, said Primary Industries Minister David Carter and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson.
The recommendations include updating the Code of Practice and strengthening the immigration approval process—both of which will help ensure better conditions for workers on FCVs,” Wilkinson wrote in the report.

“We will also be adopting a recommendation that the New Zealand fishing companies chartering foreign vessels have to show the Code is being followed. This is a significant move as it puts the onus on those companies, rather than the Department of Labour, which currently has to prove the Code has been breached,” she wrote.