New Zealand Samoan leader sentenced to 11 years in prison for slavery but experts say he is just the tip of the iceberg

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They were told they would be leaving Samoa – a small island nation in the South Pacific – for their larger neighbor, a country with around 25 times the population. Once there, they worked and returned the money to their relatives.

Most worked long hours picking fruit in orchards, but they did not receive the money they had earned. Instead, it was given to the man who had drawn them directly or indirectly to New Zealand: a Samoan leader named Joseph Auga Matamata.

On Monday, Matamata was sentenced to 11 years in prison for 10 counts of human trafficking and 13 counts of slave trafficking – the first case in New Zealand where a person has been convicted of both human trafficking human beings and slavery.He was also ordered to pay NZ $ 183,000 ($ 122,000) in reparation to his 13 victims in order to partially compensate them for the approximately NZ $ 300,000 ($ 200,000) his family received from his family. his criminal acts. Matamata has maintained her innocence.

But as Matamata’s sentence ends more than two decades of the offense, experts say her case is just the tip of the iceberg.

They say that although convictions for human trafficking and slavery are rare in New Zealand, the cases are more widespread than these convictions suggest. And they warn that more people could become vulnerable to trafficking in the post-pandemic world.

A position of trust

As a matai – or leader – Matamata had a position of authority. In Samoan culture, the matai – the person who holds the title of head of household – commands significant respect.

But, according to sentencing judge Helen Cull, Matamata abused that trust.

From 1994, Matamata began inviting family members or residents of her Samoan village to come to New Zealand to work and live on her property in Hastings, a town on the North Island of New Zealand. -Zeeland where there are a number of orchards and vineyards. All were poorly educated, most did not speak English, and some could not read.

The first victims were a brother and sister aged 17 and 15 at the time. The brother expected to earn money to send home to his family, while his sister expected to complete her education in New Zealand.

Instead, the brother worked long days in the orchards while the sister cooked, cleaned, and helped with childcare – and none were paid for their work. Matamata restricted their movements and physically abused them.

The other 11 victims – aged 12 to 53 when they arrived in New Zealand – had similar experiences, according to the judgment.

In many cases, Matamata has arranged three-month visitor visas for victims, rather than the employment visas they would need to work legally.

Victims have been told not to leave the property without permission and not to communicate with their families in Samoa unless Matamata allows it. They were not to communicate with passers-by or connect with other people during weekly church services. If they did not comply, Matamata “assaulted them and created a climate of fear and intimidation,” Justice Cull said.

Matamata contracted everything – with the exception of the 15-year-old sister – to horticultural operators, but then pocketed the money they earned for himself. One of them received as little as NZ $ 10 ($ 7) per week. Another received 850 New Zealand dollars (565 dollars) for more than 17 months of work.

Eventually, many victims were deported to Samoa because they did not have the correct visa.

When they returned home, many felt a sense of shame as they had “nothing to show for their absence and were criminalized for their illegal immigration status,” Justice Cull said in her sentencing notes, adding that the shame had been compounded mainly because of Matamata. status.

“They can’t go back to New Zealand to work and many believe this stigma and history will limit their ability to work… for the rest of their lives,” she said, noting that in many cases, come in New Zealand had aggravated their family. ‘ financial situation. “Some of the victims have hope for their future, but many still feel a lot of guilt and pain for what happened to them at the hands of (Matamata). ”

In a statement following the conviction, New Zealand Immigration’s chief audit and compliance officer Stephen Vaughan said the sentence recognized that the Matamata offense went “against all odds. basic human decency ”.

“His breach of trust, physical abuse, and blatant disregard for the welfare of the people he claimed to be helping was inadmissible and must be condemned,” Vaughan said.

New Zealand and human trafficking

It has long been felt that human trafficking and slavery does not take place in New Zealand, says Natalia Szablewska, senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, Faculty of Law, specialist in human trafficking.

Human trafficking was only added to the country’s crimes law in 2002, and as recently as 2010, the immigration chief said there was no evidence of human trafficking in New Zealand, according to an article by one of the country’s top judges.

But it was only after New Zealand broadened its definition of human trafficking in 2015 to include domestic trafficking, meaning it doesn’t need to be cross-border, that the country had his very first conviction for human trafficking. In 2016, a man named Faroz Ali was convicted of trafficking Fijian workers into the country.

Experts say the low number of convictions does not give the whole picture. According to the Walk Free Foundation’s Global Slavery Index, which is based on estimates using surveys, there are over 40 million victims of modern slavery worldwide – and 3,000 victims in New Zealand. .

As in all countries, it is difficult to collect precise statistics due to the hidden nature of the crime.

Matamata’s case did not come to the attention of authorities until 2017, according to Immigration New Zealand, and court documents indicate that most victims were too ashamed to speak out about their experiences even after returning to Samoa.

Detective Inspector Mike Foster said the case – which required assistance from Samoan authorities – was one of the most complex joint investigations between Immigration New Zealand and the police.

But even though we don’t know the true extent, research shows that exploitation is ongoing.

A report by two academics published in 2019 found that New Zealanders with student visas or employer visas were the most vulnerable to exploitation. Some interviewees in India said education officials sold them “a dream” of permanent residence in New Zealand. Some borrowed extensively to New Zealand and became so desperate when they could not find legitimate work that they accepted exploitative terms.

The majority of the 64 migrant workers interviewed for the study had been underpaid in at least one of their jobs, with wages as low as NZ $ 3 ($ 2) an hour – well below of the New Zealand minimum wage.

So, if there are more cases, why aren’t more people showing up?

One of the reasons, according to Rebekah Armstrong, director of New Zealand-based Business and Human Rights Consultants, is that victims are often terrified that if they complain, they lose their visa status – and potentially their way to the residence. In New Zealand, immigration and labor issues are handled by the same ministry – and Armstrong thinks that might deter some victims from reporting abuse.

In a 2016 report, a migrant worker interviewed said: “I feel (the employer) owns me because of the visas.”

What New Zealand should do

As millions of people around the world lose their jobs due to the coronavirus, experts warn it could make more people vulnerable to trafficking – including in New Zealand.

“Once they are desperate, (people) will go looking for so-called opportunities where what you are asked to do or the way you are asked to do it is quite unfair and below labor standards,” said Szablewska said. “Those who have been vulnerable will become even more vulnerable. “

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Gary Jones, director of trade policy and strategy 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 jobs dry up.

The current climate also worries the government. On Monday, the Department of Business, Innovation and Employment said the government would invest NZ $ 50 million ($ 33.2 million) to reduce operational risk, which it said was increasing due to Covid-19. These changes include the establishment of a new visa to help migrants out of exploitative situations and the increase in the number of immigration investigators.

But Szablewska wants New Zealand to follow in the footsteps of other countries like Australia by introducing a modern slavery law that requires companies to do due diligence on their own supply chain. New Zealand companies operating in Australia with turnover above a certain threshold are also subject to the rules.

Szablewska believes that a modern slavery law would help raise awareness of the issue in New Zealand – and possibly encourage more victims to come forward.

“I don’t think most companies, in most cases, want to rely on forced labor,” she said.

Jones believes business pressures can be more effective than legal changes.

New Zealand Apples and Pears, for example, have adopted an international framework where companies must prove they are treating workers well in order to get their products to overseas supermarkets. If they do not meet the criteria, their products will not be stored.

This change – along with other changes such as a visa system introduced over a decade ago that gives more protection to Pacific Islanders working in the horticultural industry – makes it harder for people like Matamata to commit. offenses, Jones said. But it could still happen, he said.

“If you want to hide things, you can certainly hide things,” he says.

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