22 May 2012

Foreign vessels to be reflagged as NZ boats

10:49 pm on 22 May 2012

Foreign-flagged fishing vessels are to be banned from New Zealand waters in a move the Government says will give crews greater protection. Companies have until May 2016 to comply.

The announcement on Tuesday follows a ministerial inquiry earlier this year which found that some workers on foreign vessels chartered to New Zealand operators were being mistreated and underpaid.

The changes mean vessels will have to operate under the New Zealand flag and be subject to the country's labour and safety laws.

Primary Industries Minister David Carter says reflagging the vessels will place them under New Zealand laws, hold domestic operators accountable for the employment of crew, and ensure the fair treatment of crew and the safety of the boats.

In the meantime, monitoring and enforcement will be stepped up. Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson says an observer will be put on every vessel to monitor and enforce labour and safety laws.

"They will be able to report any breaches, such as underpayment of wages back to the Labour Department and any workplace safety issues to Maritime New Zealand."

Ms Wilkinson says the crews working on these boats will be required to have New Zealand bank accounts.

The changes will be implemented over the next four years to give the fishing industry time to adjust to the new regime. David Carter says the move will have an economic impact on 12 fishing companies that charter foreign vessels at present.

"It is likely that the cost of operating a vessel under a New Zealand flag arrangement will be more costly. But if that ensures a reputation and a market then, in our opinion, that cost is worth it."

Mr Carter says detailed analysis of the costs have not been completed.

One of New Zealand's largest fishing companies says it is unfortunate that irresponsible actions by some foreign fishing vessel operators have led to boats being reflagged.

Sanford has four Korean-flagged vessels in its fleet. Managing director Eric Barratt says it has been one of the more responsible operators, despite some allegations against the company.

Mr Barratt told Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme on Tuesday that Sanford has investigated all complaints and found no evidence to support claims of abuse.

"We've had 100 percent of observer coverage on board our vessels for more than 10 years. We've investigated those allegations and been absolutely unable to corroborate them. We've conducted extensive interviews in New Zealand, Indonesia, Korea.

"We accept that publicity has not been good for New Zealand's reputation internationally. We reject our involvement in the unfortunate actions of some."

Transition time questioned

A lawyer representing crew members who say they were abused on some chartered foreign vessels says the four-year transition to reflag such boats is too long.

Craig Tuck represents the group Slave Free Seas and told Checkpoint on Tuesday that, though the changes are good, he does have some reservations.

"It's a proud day I think for New Zealand - it's a huge victory for human rights - but four years is too long. You can reflag a vessel in probably about a month. I also realise there's a number of other different mechanisms that need to be put in place, so probably two years.

"Four years is a long time when there are people out there suffering on these vessels."

But Primary Industries Minister David Carter defended the amount of time, telling Checkpoint it was a judgement call.

"We've been going to the industry now trying to find out what will be the economic impact and that's been difficult to ascertain.

"This is potentially $300 million of exports. I think in arriving at four years we're giving the industry and foreign charter owners adequate signals that the current regime is unsatisfactory."