News that a Hawkes Bay man, Viliamu Samu, AKA Joseph Matamata, has been charged with human trafficking and slavery should come as no surprise to fruit industry owners.
I’ve talked to pack house operators who have moaned about having to pay the minimum wage to labour imported from overseas. Workers from Solomon Islands and the various Pacific Island nations would happily work for less, they tell me. They’d even work through breaks, if it wasn’t illegal.
The horticultural industry is heavily reliant on physical labour. Wages are one of the few costs a business has any direct control over. You can’t tell the power company what to charge, but you can set the pay rates. If Viliamu Samu was ripping thousands of workers off over nearly three decades, then the local industry is complicit in the crime. It cannot be possible that the people who used labour he supplied didn’t realise that there was an issue.
The slavery charges carry a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison.
“This is a new low for New Zealand. To be charged with a number of victims and the combination of slavery and people trafficking, I would represent it as a new low,” Immigration NZ assistant general manager Peter Devoy told media.
The problem is that it is not new at all. Exploitation of workers in the Hawkes Bay has been rife for many, many years and is the region’s dirty little secret. And it’s no coincidence that the alleged slavery happened in the years since neo liberalism first raised it’s ugly head.
Slavery is not an unintended consequence of loosening the labour laws, it’s it’s logical conclusion.
Still, all of us can help. I raised a complaint against a Hastings business owner some five years ago. I was told he was ripping workers off, managed to find some evidence of it, and I pestered MBIE and INZ about the situation.
Happily, Jag Rawat, the businessman concerned, finally got his comeuppance this year. He was fined, lost his BP franchise and hopefully is no longer in a position to exploit workers.
The big question over this weeks slavery charges is not what will happen to Mr Samu. It’s whether the horticultural industry in the Hawkes Bay will fess up to it’s own involvement in exploitation.
Turning a blind eye should be seen as equally criminal.