22 Nov 2018

Exploited fishing boat crews finally win settlement

4:04 pm on 22 November 2018

One of the most dramatic controversies ever to shake the New Zealand fishing industry has finally come to an end.

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Crewmen who survived 'inhuman conditions' on Sajo Oyang fishing boats have finally won a settlement. Photo: tonobalaguer/123RF

This morning, the High Court in Christchurch confirmed a settlement for four crew who survived a sinking ship and 26 crew seeking unpaid wages for working on another vessel owned by the same company, Sajo Oyang.

The long-running saga includes a ship that sank claiming six lives and two others vessels that were impounded for breaching fishing laws.

The case has been marked by claims of inhuman working conditions on board the ships and a claim for more than $6 million in unpaid wages.

The crews worked in New Zealand waters for South Korean company Sajo Oyang.

One of its ships sank as it was hauling in fish in 2010.

A coroner found there had been no training in procedures to abandon ship and the disaster was exacerbated by supposedly watertight doors being left open.

Two other ships belonging to the same company were later seized by fisheries officers and accused of dumping large quantities of illegally caught fish.

In one case, the dumped fish was worth $1m.

Both cases led to successful prosecutions of captain or officers.

A six-year court battle then ensued, on behalf of four crew who survived the sinking ship and 26 crew from another vessel, who sought unpaid wages.

At issue was the liability of sister ships for the losses incurred by another vessel.

The Supreme Court ruled in March that such liability did apply, since all three ships belonged to the same company.

The parties then engaged on a judicial conference in front of a judge to determine who got how much.

They reached a full and final agreement which settles all the issues and the deal was confirmed by the High Court this morning.

The terms of the agreement are confidential, so it is not known how much money the crewmen received or whether the deal covers the full $6m of unpaid wages claimed.

But it was agreed by the crew, the ship owners and the Ministry for Primary Industries.

The settlement cannot be relitigated in New Zealand or in a foreign court.

After being detained, the South Korean boats were released on bond and started fishing off the coasts of Argentina and the Falkland Islands.

Their Korean owners went to court today, asking for the vessels to be handed back to them.

Justice Nicholas Davidson agreed, as soon as the company's share of the settlement with the crew was paid up.

The crewmen's lawyer, Karen Harding, praised their bravery, saying they had been personally empowered by fighting for their rights.

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