Human Trafficking in Aotearoa: Children, Women and Labourers at Risk

A new global report praises New Zealand's protection laws but a workers' rights advocate tells VICE the government still isn't doing enough.

by James Borrowdale
30 June 2017, 5:13am

Image via Flickr user Ira Gelb

New Zealand gets an overall pass mark in the latest global assessment on human trafficking, but a new report raises concerns over forced labour and sex trafficking—with Pacific and Māori children singled out as being particularly at risk of being coerced into prostitution.

According to the annual report on human trafficking released by the US Department of State, New Zealand falls short on several measures. It does "not consistently identify victims in vulnerable sectors, provide shelter services designed specifically for trafficking victims, or adequately conduct campaigns to raise general awareness of human trafficking."

The good news, however, is that New Zealand continues to meet "the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking", remaining a Tier 1 country; North Korea, for instance, is Tier 3.

The report follows New Zealand's very first conviction for human trafficking in September last year. Faroz Ali was found guilty of 15 people-trafficking charges, 15 charges of aiding and abetting a person to unlawfully enter the country, and one charge of aiding and abetting a person to remain unlawfully in New Zealand. He had previously pleaded guilty to 26 charges of helping people breach their visa conditions and failing to pay employees minimum wage.

Thomas Harré, of Slave Free Seas, calls the report generally "positive". "We can be a bit cynical about it and point out that the report is always positive to America's friends. If you read between the lines, it does raise some questions."

"It says, 'the government demonstrated serious and sustained efforts' by convicting one trafficker—and that was last year. Further down it points out all the vulnerabilities that different demographics have to trafficking in New Zealand."

The report raises concerns about the sex trafficking of Asian women, international students and temporary visa holders being coerced into prostitution, and a "small number" of Pacific and New Zealand children (often of Māori descent) who are at risk of sex trafficking.

The report also identifies New Zealand as a "destination country for foreign men and women subjected to forced labor". Those particularly vulnerable, the report continues, are people from China, India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pacific Island nations, countries in Latin America, and South Africa, and cites agriculture, food service, viticulture, hospitality, and domestic work as sectors of concern.

Perhaps most pertinent to Aotearoa, fishermen aboard foreign-flagged fishing vessels are identified as prime candidates for forced labour. Harré's research focuses on the human trafficking of fishermen in Southeast Asia, and he collaborated in setting up Slave Free Seas, an organisation borne of the struggle to seek justice for Indonesian fishermen who worked in slave-like conditions aboard Korean-flagged fishing vessels.

He says in 2012 the organisation handed a dossier containing evidence of highly illegal practices on board Korean fishing boats to members of the New Zealand Government and the police. "We handed them all the information they needed on a plate, and nothing happened."

The report does point out that the Fisheries Foreign Charter Vessels Amendment, which came into effect on May 1, 2016, now requires all foreign vessels fishing in New Zealand waters to abide by the country's health and labour laws. But Harré wants to see more done to prosecute those who have broken human-trafficking laws, saying New Zealand has stringent regulations and procedures to combat people trafficking, but that the country sometimes seems loathe to use them.

"The New Zealand Government hasn't done enough to investigate and initiate prosecution where there is clear evidence of human trafficking… When journalists or civil society present information relating to human trafficking to the police, there needs to be a follow-up and all those procedures that exist in New Zealand law need to be used." And why isn't that happening? "I don't know. It's actually kind of beyond me."