More slavery on our seas

February 22nd, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

Business Week tells a story that should shame us:

On March 25, 2011, an Indonesian fisherman named Yusril became a slave. Yusril (which is not his real name, to protect his identity) is 28, with brooding looks and a swagger that compensates for his slight frame. That afternoon he went to the East Jakarta offices of PT Indah Megah Sari (IMS), an agency that hires crews to work on foreign fishing vessels. He was offered a job on the Melilla 203, a South Korea-flagged ship that trawled in the waters off New Zealand. “Hurry up,” said the agent, holding a pen over a thick stack of contracts in the windowless conference room with water-stained walls. Waving at a pile of green Indonesian passports of other prospective fisherman, he added: “You really can’t waste time reading this. There are a lot of others waiting and the plane leaves tomorrow.”

Yusril was desperate for the promised monthly salary of $260, plus bonuses, for unloading the fish. His young wife was eight months pregnant, and he had put his name on a waiting list for this opportunity nine months earlier. After taking a bus eight hours to Jakarta, he had given the agent a $225 fee which he had borrowed from his brother-in-law. Other fishermen had taken debts from loan sharks to cover the fee, and a few had sold their possessions, such as livestock, or land. The agent rushed him through signing the contracts, at least one of which was in English, which Yusril could not understand.

The terms of the first contract, the “real” one, would later haunt him. In it, IMS spelled out terms with no rights. 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 over $1000 for the airfare. “Satisfactory” completion was left vague. The contract only stated that Yusril would have to work whatever hours the boat operators demanded.

The last line of the contract, in bold, warned that Yusril’s family would owe nearly $3,500 if he were to run away from the ship. The amount was greater than his net worth, and he had earlier submitted title to his land as collateral for that bond. Additionally, he had provided IMS with names and addresses of his family members. He was locked in.

Slavery may be too harsh a term, but serfdom at least.

What followed, according to Yusril and several shipmates who corroborated his story, was an eight-month ordeal aboard the Melilla 203, during which Indonesian fisherman were subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the ship’s operators. Their overlords told them not to complain or fight back, or they would be sent home, where the agents would take their due. Finally, Yusril and 23 others walked off in protest when the trawler docked in Lyttleton, New Zealand. The men have seen little if any of the money they say is owed them for their work. Such coerced labor is modern-day slavery, as the United Nations defines the crime.

The owners of the Melilla ships did not respond to requests for comment.

The experiences of the fishermen on the Melilla 203 were not unique. In a six-month investigation spanning three continents, Bloomberg Businessweek found cases of debt bondage on the Melilla 203 and at least nine other ships that have operated in New Zealand’s waters.

Now let us be clear. What is happening is illegal under NZ law. The problem is now the law. The problem is enforcement and monitoring. Around half the quota went to Maori interests as party of a treaty settlement. The idea was to allow Maori to resume their traditional fishing activities, not to make money out of Indonesian slaves.

Note, that non-Maori quota holders are also doing the same.

On that boat, the Korean officers had hit Yusril in the face with fish, and the boatswain had repeatedly kicked him in the back for using gloves when he was sewing the trawl nets in cold weather. Most unnervingly, the second officer would crawl into the bunk of Yusril’s friend at night, and attempt to rape him. Sanford CEO Eric Barratt said that his company’s New Zealand observers, which they placed on all of their foreign-chartered vessels (FCVs), reported that those ships “don’t have any issues with labor abuse.”


The boatswain would grab crew members’ genitals as they worked or slept. When the captain of the ship drank, he molested some of the crew, kicking those who resisted. As the trawl nets hauled in the catch—squid, ling, hoki, hake, grouper, southern blue whiting, jack mackerel and barracuda, along with occasional high-priced bycatch like orange roughy—the officers shouted orders from the bridge. They often 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. Even when not hauling catches, 16-hour workdays were standard.

Again, this is happening in our waters.

23 Responses to “More slavery on our seas”

  1. tas (892 comments) says:

    Why are the Indonesians lining up for this job? Surely stories like this must leak out and the stream of people willing to be slaves would dry up. What is the Indonesian government doing?

    Now I don’t think we can just kick responsibility into the Indonesian court. We have a moral obligation to stop this. Ultimately, the NZ-based company responsible needs to be liable. When a case like this emerges, Yusril should be able to go to the NZ police, who will investigate. To the extent possible, the ship’s masters should be held accountable. But the NZ company should not escape liability. They should be heavily fined and their quota possibly removed.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  2. DRHILL (123 comments) says:

    my god, we re the worst country in the world. Worse than Iran, North Korea, Afganastan and any other country tht has real slavery. This is another country’s problem, not ours!

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  3. Put it away (2,883 comments) says:

    Muslims….always with the homosexual rape. Whats that all about?

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  4. Monique Watson (1,324 comments) says:

    In NZ waters, they should be subject to NZ health and Safety. I wonder if you could enact public liability suits on these type of criminals. You’d only have to send a few fishing companies bankrupt before they got the idea.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  5. Monique Watson (1,324 comments) says:

    Is this sinilar to the Fonterra milk powder case? If there are NZ shareholding companies that are linked to the boats, they should be prosecutable.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  6. Lipo (236 comments) says:

    Shit – I read the whole post word for word and could not find anything that I should be ashamed off as stated in the opening sentence.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  7. Don the Kiwi (2,709 comments) says:

    Why aren’t Maori working the fishing quotas themselves?

    Oh that’s right, Pita Sharples told us that maori don’t like being away from their whanau for weeks at a time.
    So for the Maori elite, this is a money maker – who gives a shit about enforced sefdom, ie. slavery ?

    Maoris had slaves, so its a part of their culture, doncha know.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  8. IHStewart (388 comments) says:

    ” Note, that non-Maori quota holders are also doing the same.”

    Sanford’s is but Tally’s aren’t. Time to New Zealandise the whole industry.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  9. Mark (1,614 comments) says:

    Tas I agree with the points you make. If this is occurring in NZ waters by ships contracted by NZ quota holders then the remedy is available if there is the political will to prosecute it.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  10. backster (2,533 comments) says:

    A complaint should be lodged with the Waitangi tribunal.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  11. thas (61 comments) says:

    PUT IT AWAY (7:37am) – Koreans aren’t Muslim. Get an atlas.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  12. KH (707 comments) says:

    1. Take the quota off all the holders. They have screwed up.
    2. Leave the fish in the sea. Why have an industry that buggers our enviroment, and is conducted in a way that ensures New Zealand has no economic benefit.
    3. Promote a smaller, shore based fishing industry like we used to have. Where New Zealanders could make a good living, where there was easy entry and an enterprising person could make a good living. And New Zealanders could get and eat reasonably priced fish.
    4. Make sure there is fish in the sea for future generations.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  13. Nostalgia-NZ (6,470 comments) says:

    Like some of KH’s idea at 9.24.

    I’ve heard there is unclear liability linking the ship owners. That should be tested in Court, but who will do if not the Government?

    I don’t think the quotas should be taken away, but suspended for compliance issues and possibly prosecuted. But again who will do it if not the Government?

    If the Law isn’t available why couldn’t even a private member’s bill be given urgency. I could be wrong but I don’t think any MP would vote against liability to quota holder and ship owners, with powers to prosecute, seize or suspend (in the case of quotas.) I can’t see any reason that Parliament wouldn’t be unified on this. There could already be law available, perhaps international that could apply.

    As to the questions of why do the fisherman sign up, look at the refugee smugglers as an example – desperate people.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  14. Mark (453 comments) says:

    We should be revoking permits and/or quotas, confiscating boats if they land in NZ, and prosecuting and fining the companies and people involved.

    Without enforcement any law is worthless.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  15. Rufus (902 comments) says:

    I also like KH’s ideas at 9:24. I rue the fact we’re losing out local fishing boats.

    But someone will probably point out a local industry doesn’t make economic sense, when there’s more money to be made selling it all overseas.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  16. indie (17 comments) says:

    It seems to differ from company to company. Sealord seems to have first class standards on its foreign vessels, but others like Sanford let everyone down and ruin everyone’s reputation: see

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  17. Brian Smaller (4,333 comments) says:

    Trawling should be banned. Line fishing only.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  18. berend (1,946 comments) says:

    Why should this shame me?

    Government not upholding laws? Happens all the time. I didn’t vote for the bastards.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  19. berend (1,946 comments) says:

    Even more:During the last decade, New Zealand authorities repeatedly fined or seized the Melilla ships for ecological infractions, which the country monitored through satellite imagery and inspections by Ministry of Fisheries observers.

    Just the typical and usual NZ law enforcement. You can commit hundreds of crimes, and nothing ever happens. Punishment hurts the feelings of the poor criminals.

    Three strikes? What party was against that again?

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  20. Forrest (19 comments) says:

    It appears that what will force change is the imposition of US law and regulations. As Sanfords have already discovered in American Samoa, where one of their ships was seized and they are being prosecuted for contravening US pollution and reporting regulations, the Federal authorities do not muck about. They have already stated that they will investigate any slavery type allegations against any companies or individuals who subsequently import the fish products into the US.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  21. IHStewart (388 comments) says:

    @ KH
    1) Quota is a property right, you can’t just remove it. It would be like removing your title to a property because the tenants pissed the neighbors off. Also it would be a breech of the Treaty of Waitangi, far more sensible to say you must fish your quota sustainably or not at all.
    2)Leave fish in the sea, I agree if the only sustainable way to catch it is by using slave labour but Tally’s prove this isn’t the case.
    3)We have a very strong inshore commercial industry and it is fished exclusively by kiwis.
    4) Quota management is designed to do just that and New Zealand is considered to be the best in the world at doing this.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  22. Scott Hamilton (801 comments) says:

    Michael Field has done some good work exposing this stuff in a series of articles for the Sunday Star Times. There are appalling similarities between the twenty-first century human bondage on these ships and the Pacific slave trade of the nineteenth century, in which New Zealanders were also complicit:

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote
  23. KH (707 comments) says:

    to IHStewart @ 11.32
    Thanks for your useful reply. We disagree somewhat but it’s good to have non personalised response on this blog.
    1. Property right. Recently a local person was removed from his house and it was sold by the council because of the disgustng health hazard it was.
    2. “Leaving the fish in the sea.” We do have a more sustainable fishery than most, but there is a view that collapse is still possible. Given it’s immense value over the next million years or so we should err on the side of absolute caution.
    3. Interested to hear more on your view that we have a healthy inshore industry. That wasn’t my local impression.
    4. Treaty of Waitangi. ! Maori handed over sovereignty in return for citizenship. (The political blitz to the contrary does change what the deal actually was.) You can’t find any reference that relates to this issue. Iwi are simply owners, just like others.
    5. Fundamental point. With neglible involvement by New Zealanders, and no benefit to the country, why do we allow something so inhumane, that also roots our resources permanently. Simply don’t do this.

    Vote: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0 You need to be logged in to vote