Iwi may be compensated for end of seaborne sweatshops

Byron Clarkfish

A government agency has warned that the state may have to pay iwi upwards of $300 million in compensation for losing their access to foreign charter vessels (FCVs). The foreign ships became notorious for paying crews of mostly Indonesian workers less than New Zealand’s minimum wage, despite fishing in the country’s exclusive economic zone.

Last year 32 fishermen aboard the Korean owned Oyang 75 jumped ship in Lyttelton alleging unpaid wages as well as physical and sexual abuse by their superiors on the ship. Another vessel owned by the same outfit had previously sunk causing the deaths of six crew members. In May the government began to prepare legislation for a ban on FCVs after media (largely Sunday Star Times journalist Michael Field) and the University of Auckland Business School began publishing findings on mistreatment of workers. The ban will be implemented over the next four years.

The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) has noted that as the FCVs were being used to fish the mainly Treaty of Waitangi fisheries quota allocated to iwi, the ban would disproportionately impact on Maori and iwi quota holders. Under treaty legislation, iwi are entitled to compensation for changes in government policy. MPI said that a “worst case scenario could result in a loss in export revenues of around $300 million annually.” 

The ministry noted that this is unlikely to occur as existing foreign chartered vessels in local waters are known to have ‘reflagged’ in other jurisdictions. ‘Reflagging’ would change the registration of a ship to New Zealand, meaning it would no longer be ‘foreign’. Additionally, while FCVs make up about $302 million of New Zealand’s annual $1.53 billion seafood exports that amount is not a constant. Many consumers are unwilling to buy seafood produced in the conditions New Zealand has become known for. MPI notes that reports of the working conditions in New Zealand waters have appeared in The New York Times, Le Monde, China Daily, Jakarta Globe, The Guardian, Bloomberg Business week, and many online news sources. New Zealand caught fish have already been blocked in some markets.

How did we get to this situation? While in September the government stated officially that there would be no compensation for the crews of migrant workers abused while fishing in New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone, compensation for the iwi who contracted seaborne sweatshops to fish their quota could run into the millions.

The Quota Management System (QMS) was introduced in 1986. Under this system, fishing companies and other individuals were able to own a share of each fish stock managed under the QMS. This quota entitled the owner to a fixed quantum of catch from a fish stock. The initial allocation model for the QMS did not recognise any Treaty rights for iwi. Iwi challenged the legality of the QMS, and, in 1989, the Crown and representatives of Māori reached an interim settlement of Māori claims to fisheries. This Settlement provided for the allocation of quota (or the cash equivalent) covering 10 percent of the total quota for each fish stock in the QMS.

As with many Treaty settlements, iwi were pushed into a capitalist model of operating. Fishing quotas have not led to an abundance of kaimoana for Maori, who have higher rates of hunger poverty than Pakeha. Many iwi did not have the resources to operate their own fleets of fishing boats, and contracted out their quota to FCVs. The exception is Ngai Tahu, half owners of Sealord. (ironically Sealord is hardly known for its record on indigenous rights having been criticised by human rights groups for importing fish from occupied Western Sahara).

It would appear that Iwi fishing quotas have done more harm than good, as the presence of FCVs in New Zealand waters has bought about mistreatment and exploitation of migrant workers, as well as other issues including the depletion of fish stocks. (An FCV, the Oyang 75, was recently fined for illegal dumping of catch, dumping lower value fish to catch more expensive fish and remain within quota.)

Nonetheless there is no way to return to a pre-colonial situation; as well as the depletion of fish stocks many coastal areas are so polluted as to make traditional gathering of shellfish unsafe. Will a cash payment to iwi adequately compensate Maori for the colonial and post-colonial expropriation of resources? That much remains to be seen.


  1. what was interesting was the appearance of an iwi official arguing for the continuation of the status quo. i assumed that as pre-colonial Maori kept slaves they had a legitimate right.

    iwi were not pushed into a captalist model this is what most leaders wanted although the maori king prefers a more authoritarian style of governance. Most wanted the wealth and power to control their lives a small group have this now same as pre-colonial days.

    What is the problem?

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