The legal problem with human trafficking in New Zealand

by NZ Lawyer08 Dec 2014
At first glance, it is difficult to believe that human trafficking is an offence that is taking place in New Zealand. It is a harsh reminder that the rule of law sometimes does not reach far enough.

In its latest edition of its Rule of Law: Advancing Together newsletter, legal and business research corporation LexisNexis explored the challenges of dealing with human trafficking on our home soil.

In one recent case, two men were charged with human trafficking in New Zealand on August 28, and face a total of 11 charges. One of the men is facing another seven charges, along with a further 36 charges with a third man for giving false or misleading information to a refugee status officer in that country.

Human trafficking continues to provide forced labour in a surprisingly wide range of commercial pursuits that are notorious for low wages and conditions. It is a growing problem globally, affecting industries as varied as fishing, agriculture and farming, hospitality, entertainment and sex work, and even nursing.

Victims are often coerced into unpaid labour, prostitution - including the sexual exploitation of children - forced marriages, surrogacy, sweatshops, organ harvesting, and other indignities.

Many of the victims are residents of poorer Asian nations like Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia, and are tricked into making sea journeys working as sailors or to travel to promised jobs, only to find themselves trapped by unsubstantiated debt, confiscated identity papers, physical and psychological abuse, appalling working conditions and inadequate shelter.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that access to justice for many of these aggrieved people is not easy to acquire.

Legislation in New Zealand does not presently recognise trafficking internally, and excludes exploitation as a purpose for the offence. In many cases the best that victims of exploitation can hope for is a return to their country of origin.

But there are those in New Zealand who are joining the fight.

One group, Slave Free Seas, provide legal assistance for victims of human trafficking, along with programmes to raise public awareness of the problem, research into the extent of human trafficking around the world, and advocacy for legislative change.

Among its members are lawyers who specialise in maritime law and human rights, academics and business people.

Slave Free Seas has recently cooperated with other like-minded groups and LexisNexis to produce a series of free resources to assist those helping victims to seek justice, in any jurisdiction around the world, and to encourage the legal pursuit of those who try to profit from human trafficking.

Among these resources is Practical Guidance – Slave Free, which assists legal practitioners in their support of victims.

It contains general information on modern slavery and human trafficking, practical guidance on advocacy for victims’ rights, and ways to seek policy changes in jurisdictions that do not provide adequate safeguards for victims.

LexisNexis Pacific COO Dr Mark K Peter says it’s been a privilege to partner with the legal community to enable the advancement of society.

“Every year we decide what we’re going to focus on in terms of our charitable activites, we have specifically this year concentrated on Practical Guidance – Slave Free. Our staff put a lot of their work time and their personal time in to developing this important rule of law initiative.”

Another legal expert who is joining the fight against human trafficking is one of New Zealand’s best litigators, Bell Gully partner Ralph Simpson.

NZ Lawyer previously reported that after 24 years with the firm, Simpson will be stepping down at the end of this year to relocate to Thailand and help combat sex trafficking.

“Members of the various professions in New Zealand enjoy a privileged life. If you’re a senior barrister or a partner in a major commercial law firm the privileges are extraordinary,” he said at the time.
“The work is stimulating, you enjoy the prestige that often comes with that work, and you can generate significant wealth throughout your career. From my perspective, with privilege comes responsibility.”

Outside the office, he and his wife Joy had already spent five years mentoring young adults, and when they finished that in 2007, Simpson started thinking about his next volunteer role.

Researching his options, he began reading about human trafficking.

“This is the new face of evil in our world, and the more I looked at it the more I became convinced that it will be necessary for ordinary people to become involved in combating it,” he says.
Simpson told his wife about his interest in moving to Southeast Asia, and the couple began planning.

His wife acquired a counselling degree and gained experience providing counselling services so that she can also contribute to assisting the victims in Thailand.

Simpson then met the chief executive of New Zealand charity Nvader, and joined its board. The charity’s target is to reduce human trafficking by 10%, including rescuing victims from brothels, arresting and prosecuting brothel owners, and breaking down the trafficking networks.
It runs an investigation team that gathers evidence. Once sufficient evidence has been gathered, Nvader works with local law enforcement to effect a raid, rescue the girls and arrest and prosecute the perpetrators.
Simpson will be heading up Nvader’s Thailand office and hopes to expand the number of teams investigating sex trafficking in the region. He also plans to focus on preventing people from being trafficked by empowering the local community.

He says he’s been overwhelmed by the support he’s received from his colleagues and from the firm for his Thailand move. Bell Gully hosted a charity dinner for Nvader, which was attended by 240 of Simpson’s colleagues and clients, and lawyers from other firms, and raised $150,000.

Despite the scale of the task ahead, the lawyer seems undaunted by the challenge.
“I want to achieve something significant with the latter part of my working life. This draws me to endeavours to make the world a better place. By a better place I am not naively referring to some form of utopia. I don’t believe we will ever stop human trafficking, but we can make a serious difference in combating it.”