Fishing companies accused of favouring foreign crews over qualified New Zealanders

Fishing companies accused of favouring foreign crews over qualified New Zealanders
Photo credit: Getty Images

By Tim Brown for RNZ

Some fishing companies are being accused of overlooking qualified and competent New Zealanders in favour of bringing in foreign crews who will work in harsher conditions for less money.

A fishing industry executive says that's rubbish and there are simply not enough skilled and experienced Kiwis willing to do the work.

Last month, the government granted border exceptions for 570 foreign workers to operate deep sea fishing trawlers off New Zealand.

Those boats would have been tied up if workers could not be found and fishing companies said foreigners were necessary to crew them.

However, a marine engineer with more than a decade experience at sea told RNZ that when he applied for jobs he often did not even get as much as a call back.

"It's not just the fishing sector, it's the oil and gas sector as well - the vessel owner-operators decide what that word 'being qualified' means," he said.

"So typically where marine employers get a leg over Immigration or Maritime New Zealand or any of the other regulatory authorities, when they're seeking to bring people in they go 'well these people are not experienced on the kind of vessels we operate' and it becomes a catch-22 because they won't let you work on the vessels to get experience and then they use that as an excuse not to hire you."

He said wanted to get back to sea, and not necessarily just on a fishing boat, but companies across the merchant marine sector were overlooking New Zealanders because foreign workers tolerated tougher conditions for less pay, he said.

Anecdotally, he was not alone in his experience, he said.

New Zealand Merchant Service Guild general secretary Helen McAra said the reason for bringing in foreign crews was economic.

"They earn very low wages compared to New Zealand conditions. They come from third world labour supply countries and I'd be surprised if they met the New Zealand minimum wage," she said.

She said successive governments had swept the problem under the rug, but the pandemic had brought it back to light.

"This reliance on the foreign low-paid labour has been going on for decades and initially the idea was for it to be a transitional measure while the New Zealand workforce was developed but successive governments just allowed the practice to continue, so there was never a New Zealand workforce developed for these vessels."

The union said that was why people like Vince Scully, who had more than four decades seafaring experience and was qualified to captain vessels, was struggling to find work at sea.

Scully said companies were deliberately setting the bar too high for New Zealanders to get into the industry.

"That's the common problem. We've had that in the offshore industry in New Zealand for over 15 years," he said.

"They will say there's a job coming to New Zealand and they will ask for CVs and they look at all the CVs and then they are asking for a higher bar than what the locals have qualifications for and then they will bring in foreigners and the foreigners don't necessarily have the qualifications - they have less and they're actually paid less."

Fishing companies accused of favouring foreign crews over qualified New Zealanders
Photo credit: Getty Images

Sealord, Independent Fisheries and Maruha Nichiro teamed up to bring more than 400 workers over from Russia and the Ukraine to crew trawlers.

The first half of that group arrived on a charter flight from Russia, a pandemic hotspot, earlier this month - some later tested positive for COVID-19 in managed isolation.

Independent Fisheries executive director Mark Allison labelled claims the industry was putting up barriers to Kiwis so they could take advantage of cheap foreign labour as "nonsense".

He admitted the company's only New Zealanders onboard its vessels were in observer roles, but said the reason they did not occupy other roles on the ships was because no New Zealanders had applied.

The entire primary sector struggled to fill roles locally, he said.

"Whether you're an inshore fishery operator or a deep sea factory vessel operator, there's major shortfalls in trained, skilled and drug-free Kiwis that will go to sea," he said.

RNZ requested an interview with Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash, but he declined.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi, who established the border exceptions, did not respond to requests either.

Allison said the industry had not created barriers for Kiwis to enter roles, but the Ministry for Primary Industries told RNZ the deep sea fishing industry committed to removing them to get the border exceptions through.

In response to a query about what assurances the fishing industry gave the government about creating future pathways for New Zealanders to fill roles currently taken by foreign fishers, the Ministry for Primary Industries said: "The deep sea fishing industry has committed to removing barriers to employing New Zealanders, including reviewing pay structures and business models, and investing significantly in training and education".