Wellington. New Zealand announced an inquiry Tuesday into allegations that foreign fishing crews operating in its waters faced physical and sexual abuse aboard vessels likened to ‘slave ships.’
The government said it had ordered a “comprehensive” probe into the claims surrounding foreign flagged vessels chartered by New Zealand companies to fish in the country’s vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“We must ensure the use of all fishing vessels operating in EEZ waters supports government objectives,” Fisheries Minister Phil Heatley said.
“This includes protecting New Zealand’s international reputation as a world–leading fisheries manager.”
An Auckland University report released earlier this month alleged widespread human rights abuses of crew members, predominantly Indonesian, on foreign chartered vessels.
The Maritime Union of New Zealand, which has long accused the government of turning a blind eye to the treatment of foreign crews, said the investigation was long overdue.
“This inquiry will need to shine a light into dark places… but we know in advance that it will confirm what we already know, that disgraceful practices have become the norm and accepted by the industry,” union secretary Joe Fleetwood said.
The Auckland University report said about 30 foreign–owned vessels operated in New Zealand waters, crewed by about 2,000 sailors.
Its authors interviewed almost 150 crew members in New Zealand and Indonesia to seek first–hand accounts of their treatment.
The report found foreign crews earned less than one–fifth of their New Zealand counterparts and were forced to work shifts of up to 53 hours during peak periods.
Crew members said sexual abuse of young men was common and described the officers in charge of the vessels as “vicious bastards” who frequently lashed out at their charges.
“If anyone stands against this abuse, it has been known for them to be taken to a private cabin and beaten,” one unidentified sailor said.
Another described his ship as “floating freezer” with no heating, adding: “Absolutely appalling conditions just like a slum…there are definitely human rights abuses out there, they are slave ships.”
The government inquiry, to be carried out by former labour minister Paul Swain, is due to report back by February next year.