Originally Published in Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 209, Oct 2016:12-13. Online Link.
I’m Peter and I’m an abolitionist. I’m currently sitting at a hot desk in Penrose waiting for my phone to alert me to a message from one of two people who will tell me that: “The jury is back”. The date is Thursday, 15 September 2016 and it’s around 11am.
Yesterday I was in the High Court in Auckland, hearing Justice Heath sum up the case to the jury before they went away to consider their verdict. The trial began on Monday, 22 August 2016, where Mr Faroz Ali was charged with trafficking 15 Fijians into New Zealand and unlawfully exploiting them for his personal gain.
When I entered the High Court a few weeks earlier, I was acutely aware of the importance of this — New Zealand’s second human trafficking trial. I was also aware of the enormous work that had gone into preparing for this court case. What was scheduled as a six-week trial could be all over by the end of the fourth week. While I wait I am thinking about what I will say in the media if the verdicts are guilty and what I will say if the jury returns not-guilty verdicts. A third variation will be if they return a mixture of verdicts on the 31 charges Mr Faroz Ali is being judged on. There were a total of 57 charges and Mr Ali has already pleaded guilty to 26 of these.
Reading this, you might think New Zealand? Really? Human trafficking doesn’t happen here. It happens in places like Thailand, or America, or India, but it doesn’t happen here.
If I was asked 15 years ago I would have responded in a similar way, but the truth is people are trafficked into New Zealand from around the world and put to work in sub-human, slave-like conditions just as they are in every other country in the world.
12:30pm I check my phone — no messages.
I flick a text to a reporter I know just to make contact, as I don’t want to miss anything. She says: “Nothing yet”.
On that first day in court I was smiling internally as I heard the testimony of the first of 15 complainants describe her experience. Saliana had seen an advertisement in a newspaper in Fiji promising a good job, good wages, a work permit and a good place to live. So like anyone wanting to help their family she answered the ad and then went through a process that would see her unlawfully trafficked into New Zealand, unlawfully working for little or no pay, expected to work on a tourist visa and in living conditions that were not good. To have this “wonderful opportunity” she had to pay over an amount of money that would secure everything that was promised. In order to pay the fee Saliana had to borrow the money. She borrowed from family and friends and so was indebted to them. “That’s ok,” she thought, “I will be getting a good job picking fruit in Tauranga and I will pay that debt back easily.” When she arrived in New Zealand her experience was vastly different from the promise and her wages barely covered her costs. She had believed that they were included and covered in her initial fee payment.
Why was I smiling you might ask? Well, in November 2015 at the Nelson High Court I heard similar stories at New Zealand’s first human trafficking trial. Raghbir, a young man living in Punjab, India, attended a meeting that promised a good job picking grapes in Blenheim, New Zealand. The job had very good pay and he was promised a two-year work visa, followed by automatic permanent residency. For a fee of approximately $30,000–34,000 NZD he and his family could establish a new life in New Zealand.
Practising deception by offering a good job, good pay and the relevant visa for a fee, is a universal pattern for traffickers. Innocent people like Saliana and Raghbir, wanting to provide better lives and fortunes for themselves and their families, get caught in this sophisticated criminal network, incur huge debt and have nowhere to turn. They become modern-day slaves.
2:11pm I check my phone — nothing!
In both court cases, when a complainant challenged that the visa that was stamped in their passport was different from what was promised, the answer was the same: “When you arrive in NZ you will meet a person who will arrange for the correct visa. This visa gets you into the country.”
Hope of a bright future turns to despair for those trafficked and they are threatened that if they go to the authorities their traffickers cannot guarantee the safety of their families back in their home country. They are reminded of the debt they have incurred and pride makes them stay to try and pay off that debt. But getting free of the captors is often not possible as interest and other items are added to the original debt, which means that their debt is increasing, not reducing.
There are many non-government organisations (NGOs) in New Zealand raising awareness about the issue of slavery and human trafficking. They put on events and raise money for work done across the globe. While it’s awesome that Kiwis get in behind these endeavours, we also need to know that this abhorrent practice is hidden in our own backyard. Slavery, human trafficking and exploitation exist right here in Aotearoa. The US State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report, which measures the Government’s response to this global issue, indicates clearly that New Zealand is a source and destination country. Further, we have a predominant issue around forced and bonded labour and some issues of sex trafficking. Our performance so far has not been good. We have weak legislation, minimal training, essentially no awareness raising, and no convictions.
2:57pm Still no word from the jury-watchers at the High Court.
Maybe this will carry on until tomorrow. I’m now getting strangely nervous.
3:28pm Ping! Message received: “Guilty — all charges”.
I immediately posted onto the Stand Against Slavery Facebook page: “Today is an historic moment for New Zealand as we see our first human trafficking convictions.” Mr Faroz Ali was convicted of trafficking 15 Fijian nationals into New Zealand. Let this be a message to would-be traffickers and exploiters. This case demonstrates that we will not tolerate this kind of behaviour in New Zealand.”
As I pack my belongings to commute home I think of Saliana, who is back in Fiji trying hard to “save face” because of the debt she has incurred and has yet to pay back fully. This verdict will be one important step in her being able to do that. For us in New Zealand we need to increase the effort of making this conviction count and search out those who are exploiting, make them stop and then help those who are caught in modern-day slavery.