Investigations into human trafficking in New Zealand have found no concrete evidence it was happening, the immigration minister says.
The US State Department Trafficking in Persons 2014 Report, released today, said foreign men and women were subject to forced labour and sex trafficking in New Zealand, but the government had not prosecuted any trafficking cases in the last eight years.
The report criticised New Zealand’s lack of a comprehensive anti-trafficking law, and recommended New Zealand’s legal framework be expanded to prohibit and punishr all forms of human trafficking.
Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said New Zealand took a strong stance on trafficking, and did have stringent and comprehensive anti-trafficking laws, with penalties comparable to those for homicide or rape, reflecting the seriousness of the crime.
New legislation was “in the pipeline” to enable further action to be taken should evidence of trafficking emerge, Woodhouse said.
The report referred to forced labour aboard foreign-flagged fishing vessels in New Zealand, “including through debt bondage, confiscation of passports, underpayment of wages, imposition of significant debts, poor living and working conditions, and physical and sexual abuse.”
Asian and Pacific Islanders migrating to New Zealand to work in agriculture, horticulture and hospitality sectors were also subject to forced labour – often charged excessive recruitment fees, experiencing unjustified salary deductions, and having their passports confiscated and contracts altered.
Migrants forced to work in job conditions different to what they were promised felt they could not complain for fear of losing their temporary work visas.
A number of children within the country, often of Maori or Pacific Islander descent, were subjected to street prostitution, with some recruited by other girls or compelled by family members into child prostitution, the report said.
Foreign women from China and South-East Asia could also be at risk of coerced or forced prostitution in New Zealand.
Woodhouse said all allegations of human trafficking were investigated, but none had resulted in substantiated evidence of people trafficking.
The report said the government had decreased its efforts to hold traffickers accountable for trafficking crimes, initiating just one new investigation in 2013, compared to eight in 2012.
In one of three investigations pending at the close of the last reporting period, employers of Fijian nannies allegedly subject to domestic servitude were acquitted on trafficking charges, although the nannies were awarded back pay and damages for underpayment of wages and excessively long work hours.
Labour Party justice spokesman Andrew Little said the Immigration Department should ensure the conditions of workers’ permits were being fulfilled and they did not end up in exploitative situations.
A lot of enforcement of labour standards did not happen because the number of labour inspectors had been run down, and they were forced to react to complaints rather than proactively conduct inspections, Little said.
New Zealand maintained its tier one ranking in the report, identifying it as a country that complies with minimum standards for protecting trafficking victims.
New Zealand has been named as a “source country” for sex trafficking of underage girls and a destination country for forced labour in a sharply critical report released by the US State Department.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released the annual Trafficking in Persons report in Washington DC this morning.
It accuses New Zealand of having a small number of girls and boys, often of Maori or Pacific Island descent, who are trafficked domestically as street prostitutes.
They can be the victim of gang trafficking rings, the report said.
Foreign women from China and Southeast Asia are recruited to become prostitutes in New Zealand and may be at risk of coercive practices, it said.
The report also takes aim at violent and abusive conditions in place on some foreign-flagged fishing vessels in New Zealand waters.
[The] New Zealand Government was urged to make greater efforts to assess the extent of sex and labour trafficking and to enact legislation increasing punishments and prohibitions for trafficking offences.
Current New Zealand law contains a narrow definition of trafficking as a transnational offence, the report said.
Other provisions in the 1961 Crimes Act outlaw slavery, but fail to bar forced labour through debt, law, custom or agreement prohibiting a person leaving employment, it said.
“Because the prohibition of trafficking is limited to transnational actions such as the abduction, use of force or threat, or force, coercion, or deception to arrange entry into New Zealand – and does not include reference to exploitation, there appears to be no legal prohibition on the domestic recruitment, transfer, or transportation of adults for the purpose of exploitation.”