They were told to leave Samoa – a small island nation in the South Pacific – for their larger neighbor, a country of about 25 times its population. Once they worked there and sent money back home to their loved ones.
Most of the long hours worked collected fruit from the orchards, but did not receive the money they earned. Instead, he was given to a man who lured them directly or indirectly to New Zealand: a Samoan chief named Joseph Augu Matamat.
On Monday, Matamata was sentenced to 11 years in prison for 10 trafficking offenses and 13 slave trafficking offenses – the first case in New Zealand where a person was convicted of trafficking and slavery at the same time.
He was also ordered to pay $ 183,000 ($ 122,000) in compensation to 13 victims to partially compensate them for the estimated $ 300,000 ($ 200,000) his family had received from the crimes. Matamata kept his innocence.
But while Matamat’s sentence ends more than two decades of crime, experts say his case is just the tip of the iceberg.
It is said that although allegations of trafficking in human beings and slavery are less common in New Zealand, cases are more widespread, as this judgment suggests. They also warn that in a post-pandemic world, more people could become vulnerable to human trafficking.
A position of trust
As a matai – or chief – Matamata had authority. In Samoan culture, Matai – the person who holds the main title of the family – shows significant respect.
However, according to convicted Justice Judge Helen Cull, Matamata abused that trust.
Since 1994, Matamata has been inviting family members or people from his village in Samoa to come to New Zealand to work and live on his property in Hastings, a North Island town in New Zealand with many orchards and wineries. All were poorly educated, most did not speak English and some could not read.
The first victims at the time were a brother and sister aged 17 and 15. The brother expected to earn money to send home to his family, while his sister was to complete her education in New Zealand.
Instead, the brother worked long days on the orchards, while the sister cooked, cleaned, and helped care for the children — none of whom were paid for their work. Matamata restricted her movements and physically abused them.
Another 11 victims – aged 12 to 53 at the time they came to New Zealand – had similar experiences, according to the verdict.
In many cases, Matamata organized three-month visas for victims, instead of work visas that would have to work legally.
The victims were told not to leave the property without permission and not to communicate with their families in Samoa unless Matamata allowed it. During weekly services, they were not to communicate with passers-by or connect with other people. If they do not, Matamata “attacked them and created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation,” said Justice Cull.
Matamata made all the contracts – with the exception of her fifteen-year-old sister – for gardening businesses, but then she used the pockets to collect the money she had earned for herself. One received only 10 New Zealand dollars a week. Another received $ 850 in New Zealand ($ 565) for work longer than 17 months.
Eventually, many victims were deported to Samoa because they did not have the correct visas.
When they returned home, many felt ashamed because “they had nothing to prove in their spare time and were criminalized because of their illegal immigration status,” Judge Cull said in her condemning remarks. position.
“They cannot return to work in New Zealand and many feel that this stigma and history will limit their ability to work … for the rest of their lives,” she said, noting that coming to New Zealand has exacerbated their families in many cases. ‘ financial situation. “Some of the victims are hoping for the future, but many still feel a lot of guilt and pain for what happened to them in Matamata’s hands.”
“His breaches of trust, physical abuse and blatant disregard for the well-being of the people he helped were irreversible and must be condemned,” Vaughan said.
New Zealand and human trafficking
Natalia Szablewska, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Law of Auckland University of Technology, who specializes in human trafficking, has long felt that human trafficking and slavery do not occur.
As in all countries, it is difficult to obtain accurate statistics due to the hidden nature of the crime.
According to New Zealand immigration, the Matamat case did not come to the attention of the authorities until 2017, and according to court documents, most victims are ashamed to talk about their experiences even after returning to Samoa.
Child Inspector Mike Foster said the case – which required help from the Samoan authorities – was one of the most comprehensive joint investigations between New Zealand immigration and police.
Although we do not know the true extent, research shows that exploitation is taking place.
Most of the 64 migrant workers interviewed were underpaid in one of their studies, with some wages as high as 3 New Zealand dollars ($ 2) per hour, a significantly lower minimum wage in New Zealand.
So if there are more cases, why don’t more people come?
One reason, according to Rebekah Armstrong, director of business and human rights consultants in New Zealand, is that victims are often afraid that they will lose their visa status – and possibly their path to residence – if they complain. In New Zealand, immigration and labor issues are handled by the same ministry – and Armstrong believes some victims may report abuse.
What New Zealand should do
As millions of people worldwide have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus, experts warn that more people would be vulnerable to human trafficking – including in New Zealand.
“Once they are desperate, (people) will go for so-called opportunities, where what is required of you or the way you are required to do so is completely unfair and below labor standards,” Szablewska said. “Those who have been vulnerable will become even more vulnerable.”
Gary Jones, trade policy and strategy manager for the New Zealand apples and pears industry group, said the 350,000 migrant workers currently in New Zealand could become vulnerable to exploitation if their work dried up.
However, Szablewska wants New Zealand to follow the steps of other countries, such as Australia, by introducing a law on modern-day slavery, which requires companies to carry out in-depth analysis in their own supply chain. New Zealand companies operating in Australia with turnover above a certain threshold are also subject to these rules.
Szablewska thinks the Modern Slavery Act would help raise awareness of the issue in New Zealand – and perhaps encourage more victims to apply.
“I don’t think most companies want to rely on forced labor in most cases,” she said.
Jones believes that trade pressures may be more effective than legal changes.
For example, New Zealand apples and pears have adopted an international framework in which companies must prove that they treat employees well in order to get their products to overseas supermarkets. If they do not meet these criteria, their products will not be in stock.
The move – along with other changes such as the visa scheme introduced more than a decade ago, which provides greater protection for Pacific islanders working in the horticultural industry – is making insults to people like Matamata, Jones said. But it can still happen, he said.
“If you want to hide things, you can definitely hide them,” he said.