Alleged slavery? Human trafficking? Surely not in Samoa!

Let’s face it. Claims of human trafficking and slavery are not the sort of allegations you’d normally associate with this country, let alone someone from this part of the world. 

The truth is that when these terms are mentioned and thrown around, the mind immediately conjures up images of immigrants in South America, Asia and the Middle East among other places, who are trying to seek refuge from poverty, famine and war. 

Surely not this paradise we call home.

So imagine our surprise when the news broke earlier this week that for two years, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) and the New Zealand Police had been investigating a scheme of that nature, not just involving Samoans but also allegedly run by a man from Samoa.

We are talking about the case of Viliamu Samu, who is also known as Joe Matamata. He is the man who has been charged with human trafficking and slavery in New Zealand. 

The charges follow the findings of the investigation, which accuses him of taking Samoans from here to New Zealand to work illegally in the horticultural industry, since the early 1990s. 

The details of what happened remains unclear at this stage. And because the matter has gone before Court in New Zealand, we will not speculate.

What we do want to say is that what has happened is an eye-opener for all of us, especially people who are vulnerable to being caught up in this sort of arrangement. 

This point was highlighted by New Zealand Detective Inspector, Mike Foster, when they announced the charges.

“Information collected during the joint investigation suggests that the man, who was seen as a respected member of his community in Samoa, targeted vulnerable people, who had limited education and literacy,” he said.

According to a statement from the New Zealand Immigration, the allegations made by the victims include not being paid for work completed, having their passports taken, and being subjected to physical assaults and threats. The victims also allege that their movements were closely monitored and controlled by the man, and there were restrictions on both where they went and who they had contact with.

“[The arrest] reflects how seriously both of our agencies take these types of allegations, and our commitment to combating Transnational Organised Crimes, including people trafficking,” INZ Assistant general manager Peter Devoy said.

The point was also not lost on New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, who also addressed the issue this week.

“We want to do more to uncover where exploitation is occurring,” she said.

“We had roughly 1,800 complaints in the last year. That led to 13 prosecutions, 320 other outcomes and 300 investigations that are still ongoing. It is fair to say that there is quite a bit of work in this space but we do need to do more.”

She’s got a point. 

There is also the question of how many other similar schemes that are yet to be discovered. Indeed, while this week’s arrest is the first for Samoa, it is unlikely to be the last one. 

We’ve heard many stories of such schemes, where Samoans are flown over to New Zealand for fruit picking jobs. Many of them are on visitors’ visas, which prohibits them from being employed, and yet that still doesn’t deter them. It would be interesting to find out if that is also what happened in this particular case.

It would be even more interesting to hear what Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi would have to say about this, especially the human trafficking and slavery nature of the allegations. 

The day after the news broke, the Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Labour, Pulotu Lyndon Chu Ling, expressed concerns about the case.

“This is a concern for us because we try to ensure the interests of locals, who are contracted to work overseas, are safeguarded,” Pulotu told the Samoa Observer.

“Employers in New Zealand have the responsibility to look after the affairs of the workers coming to work for them. When such actions occur and are against the contract and the seasonal workers programme, we ensure that the employers are penalised according to the law of that country.” 

In relation to the Government-sanctioned work schemes with New Zealand and Australia, Pulotu assured that there is a Liaison Officer and also a High Commission that checks on Samoan workers. 

“We do follow ups regarding locals who have been contracted overseas to work under the seasonal workers programme.

“We have a liaison officer in New Zealand and he does follow up in accordance with the contracts that workers are given. We work closely with the employers. Some employers prefer to do direct recruitment or others prefer for us to do the recruitment process. 

“So we screen the applications and identify the best and suitable people to travel and work overseas. We assist the applicants with helping them understand their contracts.”

Lastly, Pulotu said: “Our priority is the locals who go and work overseas, we make sure that everything is done according to the paper works, their accommodation, food, pay etc.”

Well that’s great to know. 

Which means that the best lesson for everyone – especially people who are most likely to take up these opportunities, is that if it smells fishy, looks fishy then it must be fishy. It is better to stick with the official work scheme programmes run by the Government with their official partners, in order to be safe. 

Have a fabulous Friday Samoa, God bless! 

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