An Update from Sanford on Ensuring Safe Working Conditions and Fair Employment Practices

Several new developments have taken place since E. Benjamin Skinner’s Feb. 23 Bloomberg/BusinessWeek article appeared alleging substandard labor practices aboard some New Zealand foreign charter fishing vessels (FCV). We want to take a moment to update our site with new information on this important issue.

On March 1, the New Zealand government released its Ministerial Inquiry report, which proposed new policies for FCV operators to strengthen crewmen oversight and reporting protocols. Sanford stands in strong support of the proposals so far adopted by government which we believe will help protect the safety and well being of FCV workers across our entire industry. Among its many proposals, the report has recommended:

  • The placement of dedicated monitors aboard each FCV;
  • A standardized reporting process by vessel, operator, and charter party; and
  • The use of updated technology to streamline reports from onboard observers.

At Sanford, we have already implemented these and other important practices. For the past decade, Sanford has been the only operator to require independent observers aboard each of our foreign charters during its entire voyage. These observers report on a broad range of onboard activities, including the living and working conditions aboard the vessel, unlike government observers charged only with monitoring compliance with fisheries regulations. Sanford’s observers have access to satellite phones and email, and are required to immediately report issues of concern directly to Sanford management.

They are also obligated to submit a formal report to Sanford at the conclusion of each voyage documenting their findings. To assure their impartiality, they are employees of an independent agency and have no allegiance to or interest in Sanford whatsoever. With specific respect to Bloomberg’s allegations, we have completed a series of interviews with the actual observers assigned to the Dong Won 519 voyages that took place two years ago. Interviews were also completed with shipmates of the lead character in the Bloomberg article, from the time he was on the Dong Won 519.

To avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, Sanford retained an outside law firm to conduct these interviews with no Sanford employees present. Neither the observer reports nor the interviews that have been completed have corroborated any of the allegations of abuse on vessels chartered by Sanford.

To be clear, this is not to say additional reforms of FCV labor policies, including our own, aren’t necessary. There are a number of changes that the FCV industry can implement, beyond those cited in the Ministerial Inquiry report, to better protect the crews aboard these vessels and provide safe and ethical working conditions. To this end, Sanford is pursuing additional steps to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of all hired crews aboard foreign chartered fishing vessels. For example:

  • We are working with our foreign partners to restructure agreements with overseas agencies that arrange employment for the crews for our FCVs. We intend for these agencies to be responsible for crew recruitment only, not the distribution of salaries.  Once a crewmember is in New Zealand jurisdiction, payments would be made to that crewmember according to New Zealand law. With payments structured this way, the overseas agencies would no longer have any perceived authority over the crews they deal with.
  • We are currently developing a process whereby all crewmembers would be paid directly in or from New Zealand, rather than by the overseas agency.  This process would need to include an ability for crew to remit funds to designated family members in a timely and reliable manner.
  • We support greater accountability among all FCV operators so that companies are obligated through the relevant quota owner to submit to a financial or operational penalty if they are found to be noncompliant with the Ministerial Inquiry report’s new proposals. We are actively engaged with government and other industry members — in consultation on and support for government action — to achieve the intent of the recommendations in the Ministerial Inquiry Report.
  • We are calling on other FCV companies — especially smaller enterprises that do not have a significant market presence — to adopt these and other measures for the betterment of our industry.

We are proud of New Zealand’s international reputation for high-quality, safe and sustainably produced seafood. This is a major competitive advantage in a world where food production is coming under increasing consumer scrutiny.

As an established and trusted New Zealand institution, Sanford recognizes that we must be a leader in ensuring safe working conditions and fair employment practices. We welcome this responsibility, just as we have for more than 130 years.

An Open Letter to Our Customers

Recently, news reports have alleged abhorrent working conditions aboard foreign charter fishing vessels (FCVs) operating in New Zealand waters.  One of these stories cited allegations by an anonymous individual on a voyage chartered by Sanford in 2010.  We take these allegations seriously and have launched a full investigation to determine the facts as they may relate to our company. Thus far we have found no evidence of any improper activity on the 2010 voyage, but our investigation is ongoing as is our endeavor to learn the truth behind these claims.

Sanford Ltd is committed to ensuring safe working conditions for crews aboard all FCVs and we strongly agree with the recent Ministerial Inquiry that all those who fish in New Zealand waters should be subject to the same standards and rules regarding vessel safety, workplace conditions and fisheries regulations. This way, the high standards we strive to uphold at Sanford will be applied to all.

To that end, we will support and cooperate with any independent agency regarding FCV labor practices.

Sanford has long been a leader in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of its crewmembers. We are the only company in New Zealand that has had a policy of 100% independent observer coverage on its charter vessels for over 10 years.

But we believe more must be done. That’s why we are taking the following steps to ensure that proper standards are observed on FCVs chartered by Sanford:

  1. We are redrafting our observer contracts to increase their accountability and will implement a process of independent audit interviews with crew at the end of each voyage and at the end of each person’s contract.
  2. We are initiating a comprehensive review of crewing agents and use only those that offer transparent and professional services to both crew and vessel owners.
  3. We are improving our payment processes to ensure crewmembers are paid their agreed wages and exploring ways to enable them to receive wages directly or to their family or other independent channel.
  4. We will specify on all our seafood whether it was caught by Sanford-owned vessels or by charter vessels.

The mistreatment of any crewmember on any vessel is inexcusable. We will take swift action if we uncover substantiation of such behavior on vessels contracted by Sanford.  Until then we cannot validate the claims made about Sanford by unnamed sources in the news media.

A Word About the Bloomberg BusinessWeek Article

On Feb. 24, 2012, Bloomberg BusinessWeek published a story by reporter E. Benjamin Skinner, “Fishing as Slaves on the High Seas,” alleging abhorrent working conditions aboard foreign charter fishing vessels.  Among the companies mentioned in the report was Sanford Limited.  The article included allegations made by “Yusril,” an anonymous crewman aboard a Sanford-chartered vessel, the Dong Won 519, on fishing voyages from 2008 to 2010.

Sanford is committed to maintaining safe working conditions for crews aboard all foreign-charter and non-charter fishing vessels.  As part of this commitment, we are conducting our own thorough investigation of the allegations cited in the Bloomberg story.  As yet we have been unable to substantiate the claims made about Sanford, but we are continuing our investigation.

Regrettably, in the wake of Bloomberg’s story, other media organizations have repeated the unverified allegations and failed to mention that Sanford has been the only company in New Zealand for the past 10 years to always require an independent observer on board its charter vessels. These independent observers have direct access to Sanford management and are able to relate any concerns about the crew’s treatment directly from the vessel to shore at any time.

To ensure the public receives accurate information on this issue, this forum will communicate the facts and point out when media organizations publish inaccurate information, or violate their very own journalistic standards of sourcing, fairness and objectivity in the production of their stories.