The Maritime Union says information revealed in a New Zealand documentary on the fishing industry must be followed up by a Government inquiry.
The documentary The Great New Zealand Fishing Scandal by investigative journalist Guy Henderson screened on Sky last night and today, and covered developments in the industry since the 1990s.
Maritime Union General Secretary Trevor Hanson says the documentary was accurate and he believes there is much more to be uncovered.
He says fishing industry bosses are driven by “unconstrained greed” and Government had kowtowed to powerful private interests.
“History will judge the actions of some of these people and the industry as a whole.”
He says the treatment of overseas crew on foreign and joint venture “flag of convenience” vessels had been appalling and was an ongoing problem.
Mr Hanson says the system is being used to drive New Zealand workers out of the industry.
He says he is disturbed at how some quota holders, including Maori quota holders, were using overseas crews and refusing to train young New Zealand workers in this industry especially at a time of increasing unemployment.
There were strong connections globally between illegal fishing, exploitation and abuse of workers, and the destruction of the marine environment and fish stocks.
He says the cost of local fish was a concern as overseas demand priced it out of the reach of ordinary New Zealanders, and prices of up to $39 per kilogram needed explanation.
He was concerned about the importation of low quality catfish from China and Vietnam to New Zealand, as well as the processing of New Zealand fish overseas.
The quota system was not providing enough protection for species such as orange roughy.
Mr Hanson says it is standard practice for ship owners to crew vessels with officers and crew of different nationalities, with crew members picked up by corrupt labour hire agencies in developing countries.
Foreign seafarers were often so desperate for work they signed up on oppressive terms and conditions, often went unpaid and were away from their home and families for sometimes years.
There had been numerous documented cases of crew members not being paid, being underpaid, having their wages eaten up by agency fees, and being verbally and physically abused.
Mr Hanson noted the case of 33-year old Korean fisherman Vo Minh Que, who was drowned in January 2004 in waters 70 kilometres south of Stewart Island.
The victim was flipped overboard from the ‘Tasnui’ by a trawl wire after equipment failure and had bobbed in the ocean nearby to the vessel while a “series of hideously inadequate and half-pie” rescue attempts were made, according to the Southland Times (2 October 2004), whose editorial comment described the incident as a “disgrace” and a “squalid tragedy.”
The Maritime New Zealand report on the drowning of Mr Vo noted how the poor condition of the vessel and the lack of safety gear or procedures contributed to the fatality – problems that had previously been reported by Maritime New Zealand but not acted upon.
“The Maritime Union has done what it can to assist in the incidents that we have come across, this is done entirely on a solidarity basis simply because these crew members have no one else to look after their interests.”
He says the industry is incapable of policing itself and the Government and bureaucracy saw problems with crews as an embarrassment which it was not motivated to do anything about.
Mr Hanson says the Maritime Union had lobbied the Government hard for stronger protections for workers in the industry and this had resulted in some improved regulations around pay and conditions.
But he says that he is concerned about the enforcement of these rules because problems continued to crop up on a regular basis.
Mr Hanson says if New Zealanders want to see the reality of free trade promoted by the Government, they should look no further than the fishing industry a few miles off their own coast.
“We don’t have to go to the Third World to see Third World conditions – the Third World conditions have come to us.”
“The fishing industry and its treatment of overseas crews is a graphic demonstration of the race to the bottom in working conditions. Add this to the damage to fishing stocks and we really have a social and environmental travesty out of sight, out of mind.”
He says the Maritime Union will continue to campaign on the issue which was also the focus of a campaign by the International Transport Workers Federation, comprised of 654 unions representing 4,500,000 transport workers in 148 countries.