They were told they would leave Samoa, a small island nation in the South Pacific, for their larger neighbor, a country with about 25 times the population. Once there, they will work and send money home to their loved ones.
Most of them worked for a long time picking fruit from the gardens, but they did not receive the money they earned. Instead, he was handed over to a man who directly or indirectly lured them to New Zealand: a Samoa chief named Joseph Auga Matamata.
On Monday, Matamata was sentenced to 11 years in prison for 10 trafficking in human beings and 13 cases of slavery – the first case in New Zealand where a person was convicted of both human trafficking and slavery at the same time.
He was also ordered to pay 183,000 New Zealand dollars (122,000 dollars) in compensation to his 13 victims, partially reimbursing them for approximately 300,000 New Zealand dollars ($ 200,000) that his family had received for their crimes. Matamata maintained his innocence.
But while Matamata’s verdict ends more than two decades of insults, experts say his case is just the tip of the iceberg.
They say that although allegations of human trafficking and slavery are rare in New Zealand, the cases are more common than indicated. And they warn that more people may become vulnerable to human trafficking in the post-pandemic world.
Position of trust
As a mataya – or chief – Matamata had a position of authority. In the Samoan culture, the Matai, the person with the main title of family, deserves considerable respect.
But according to the judge’s sentence, Ellen Kuhl, Matamata abused that trust.
Beginning in 1994, Matamata began inviting family members or people from his village to Samoa to come to New Zealand to work and live on his estate in Hastings, a town on the northern island of New Zealand, where there are a number of orchards and wineries. All were poorly educated, most could 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 hoped to earn money to send home to his family, while his sister expected to finish her education in New Zealand.
Instead, the brother worked in the gardens for many days, while the sister cooked, cleaned, and helped care for the children — and none of them 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 a court ruling.
In many cases, Matamata organized three-month visas for visitors, rather than employment visas, with which they must work legally.
The victims were told not to leave their property without permission and not to communicate with their families in Samoa if Matamata did not allow it. They were not allowed to associate with passers-by or associate with other people at weekly church services. If they did not comply, Matamata “attacked them and created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation,” said Justice Kull.
Matamata charged everyone – except his 15-year-old sister – with horticultural operators, but then put in his pocket the money he had earned. One was given only $ 10 in New Zealand ($ 7) per week. Another received 850 New Zealand dollars ($ 565) for more than 17 months.
Eventually, many victims were deported to Samoa because they did not have proper visas.
When they returned home, many felt ashamed because “they had nothing to show for time, and they were criminalized for illegal immigration status,” Justice Kull said in her sentences, adding that the shame was exacerbated by Matamata’s status.
“They can’t go back to New Zealand for work, and many feel this stigma. History will limit their ability to work … for life,” she said, noting that in many cases, coming to New Zealand had worsened their families. her financial situation. “Some victims are hoping for their future, but many people still feel a lot of guilt and pain for what happened to them (Matamata).”
“His breach of trust, physical violence and blatant disregard for the well-being of the people he intended to help were obscene and should be condemned,” Vaughn said.
New Zealand and human trafficking
For a long time, there was a perception that human trafficking and slavery did not take place in New Zealand, said Natalia Sablevska, a senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology Law School who specializes in human trafficking.
As in all countries, it is difficult to collect accurate statistics due to the hidden nature of the crime.
Matamata’s case was known to the authorities only in 2017, according to a report on New Zealand’s immigration, and court documents say that most victims are ashamed to talk about their experience even after returning to Samoa.
Detective Inspector Mike Foster said the case – which required the help of the Samoan authorities – was one of the most difficult joint investigations between New Zealand immigration and the police.
But while we do not know the true extent, research shows that exploitation is happening.
Most of the 64 migrant workers surveyed surveyed were underpaid for at least one of their jobs, with some wages as low as $ 3 in New Zealand ($ 2) per hour, well above New Zealand’s minimum wage. Zealand.
So if there are more cases, why don’t more people come forward?
One reason, according to Rebecca Armstrong, director of business and human rights consultants in New Zealand, is that victims are often afraid that if they complain, they will lose their visa status – and may travel to their place of residence. In New Zealand, immigration and labor are handled by the same ministries – and Armstrong believes this could prevent victims from reporting abuse.
What New Zealand should do
When millions around the world lose their jobs due to the coronavirus, experts warn that it could make more people vulnerable to human trafficking – including in New Zealand.
“After they are desperate, (people) will go to the so-called opportunities, when what you are asked to do, or how you are asked, to do it is quite unfair and below labor standards,” – said Sablevskaya. “Those who are vulnerable will become even more vulnerable.”
Gary Jones, head 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 dried up.
But Szablewska wants New Zealand to follow in the footsteps of other countries, such as Australia, by introducing the Modern Slavery Act, which requires businesses to be very careful about their own supply chain. The rules also apply to New Zealand businesses operating in Australia and with a turnover above a certain threshold.
Sablewska believes the Modern Slavery Act will help raise awareness of the problem in New Zealand – and may encourage more victims.
“I don’t think most companies want to rely on forced labor in most cases,” she said.
Jones believes that commercial pressure can be more effective than legal change.
For example, New Zealand apples and pears have adopted an international framework in which companies must prove that they treat employees well to deliver their products to foreign supermarkets. If they do not meet the criteria, their products will not be available.
This shift – along with other changes, such as the visa scheme, introduced more than a decade ago to provide greater protection for Pacific islanders working in the horticultural sector – makes it difficult for people like Matamata to take offense, Jones said. But it can still happen, he said.
“If you want to hide things, you can definitely hide things,” he said.