11 Apr 2013

Sealord defends use of foreign charter vessels

7:21 pm on 11 April 2013

One of the country's largest fishing companies is defending the use of foreign charter vessels in New Zealand waters, saying the majority of them operate to the same standards as New Zealand-owned vessels.

Parliament's primary production committee is considering submissions on proposed legislation that would bring foreign-crewed fishing vessels under New Zealand laws.

The Government wants all foreign-owned fishing vessels in New Zealand waters to operate under the New Zealand flag and be subject to the country's labour and safety laws by May 2016.

This is in response to a ministerial inquiry in 2012, which found some workers on fishing boats chartered to New Zealand companies were being mistreated and underpaid.

On Thursday, Sealord Group's chief executive Graham Stuart told MPs it is unfair that irresponsible actions by some foreign operators could force all boats to be reflagged.

Mr Stuart said the company has been using Ukrainian vessels for almost 20 years and their safety and compliance record comply with New Zealand standards and crews are paid in accordance with with New Zealand law."

At present, there are 26 foreign charter boats operating in New Zealand waters. They make up about half of the deep sea fleet, catch about 60% of the fish and are crewed by about 1500 foreign fishermen.

No place for sweatshops - Talley's

A Talley's Group director, Peter Talley, told the committee New Zealand is the only country that allows foreign chartered vessels in its waters.

"They were originally introduced as stepping stones. The operators have made them sitting stones and I don't see how any man can sit up and advocate continued employment of foreign crew when we've got 170,000 New Zealanders unemployed."

Mr Talley said foreign charter vessels have no place in New Zealand's fishing industry, as some workers are being mistreated and underpaid and that legislation would not put fishing companies using foreign-chartered vessels out of business.

"I don't want to turn the New Zealand fishing industry into the textile sweatshops, for argument's sake, and that's what's been happening.

"So, no, those people aren't going to be put out of business - they can go and charter a proper boat and crew it with proper crew and pay the proper wages.

"They've had far too long to play the game and cheat the authorities, cheat New Zealanders and cheat the tax department."

Peter Talley believed those companies should be made to operate under New Zealand health and safety laws and told MPs the lead-in time for the changes should be shortened from four years to one year.

But Sealord's Graham Stuart argued some New Zealand-owned vessels have also been known to operate illegally - and foreign vessels shouldn't be singled out.

"There's been plenty of cases where there's been prosecutions of New Zealand crew and skippered vessels owned by New Zealanders in the deep water fishery. So from a risk management point of view, targeting foreign charter vessels per se would seem to be inappropriate."

Risks 'need identifying'

Doug Saunders-Loder from the Commercial Fishermen Federation questioned why the Government is targeting all boats operating in New Zealand waters, when foreign fishing vessels have mainly been the problem.

Mr Saunders-Loder told MPs that Government scrutiny should be based on the number of complaints that are received - which is a good indicator of a poorly-run vessel.

"Those foreign charter vessels and the companies that run them will simply be risk assessed.

"And it will be a very simple job for the Government over a very short period of time, I would say, to be able to identify the risk for each of those vessels is deemed to be medium, low or high.

The primary production committee is due to report back to the House by the middle of June.