A Hawke’s Bay horticultural labour contractor has been sentenced to 11 years in jail in New Zealand’s first prosecution for dual offences of people trafficking and slavery.
The sentence was imposed on the now 66-year-old Joseph Auga Matamata, also known as Viliamu Samu, the holder of the family chief title of Matai in Samoa and who appeared today before Justice Helen Cull in the High Court in Napier.
She allowed a discount from a starting point to account for forfeiture of assets, and an order of $183,000 in reparation to complainants, but declined to allow a discount for cultural background, saying “the fact remains” Matamata abused his position in the Samoan title of Matai.
She declined to apply a minimum non-parole term.
They related to offences against 13 people brought from his home community to work in New Zealand over a 25-year period from 1994 to his arrest in December 2018.
The maximum penalty for trafficking in law is 20 years, and for slavery 14 years, Justice Cull, noting particular aggravating factors were the quarter-century span of the offences the number of victims, use of the victims as Matamata’s own “personal property,” and that offences against others occurred even after early victims had absconded, caught and been deported.
With only one previous case of trafficking in New Zealand, and two of slavery, the Judge included reference to UK decisions before determining the sentence in a hearing lasting almost two hours.
Matamata, from the villages of Faala Savaii and Manonotai on Savaii, the biggest island in Samoa, had come to New Zealand about 40 years ago and lived in Hastings suburb Camberley.
Justice Cull said victim impact statements from the 13 victims showed a thread of cultural shame over not being paid and being unable to return money to Samoa for their families, and being unable now to return to New Zealand because of their immigration status.
While he arranged and paid for visitor visas, workers were forced into overstaying to work, mainly not paid as promised, there were cases of effectively being held captive and one escaped to Auckland before being found by Matamata who then returned the victim to Hawke’s Bay.
Justice Cull said Matamata took the passports of the victims, several of whom arrived as teenagers, victims lived on his properties of two houses and two garages, told to do chores, and not to talk to anyone outside.
If the victims did not perform to expectations, they were assaulted, and their evidence in court was “compelling,” the Judge said.
Several absconded and were captured by police, in breach of immigration requirements, and when they returned to Samoa most were not prepared to talk about their experiences, out of cultural shame.
Crown prosecutors were Clayton Walker and Fiona Cleary and the defence counsel Roger Philip.
Walker sought a sentence of 15-16 years, plus 6 months to reflect a previous record (of violent and other offences) and less 18 months to recognise reparation of $183,000, being the balance from a half-share of two family homes in Kiwi St, Camberley, in an arrangement between the parties after a separate forfeiture hearing in the court last month.
Philip suggested a starting point of 13-14 years, with a two-year discount to reflect the forfeiture and reparation, saying it was accepted the defendant must be accountable, although he had been disappointed with the verdicts.
Walker said Matamata used his position of trust as a “matai”, or chief in his village in Samoa, to control the victims, most of whom were at a “distinctive disadvantage,” not well educated, poor and travelling abroad for the first time believing they would be earning money for themselves and to help families back in the islands.
Matamata knew they were not coming to New Zealand for the collective good of their families and his deceptive nature had no part in Samoan culture, Walker said, adding it showed a degree of organisation planning.
It also involved in abuses if the New Zealand immigration system, some brought to New Zealand on visitor visas when he had no intention they would return to Samoa.
He led them to expect that they would be paid, but his primary motivation was to exploit victims, Walker said. It led to long hours and restrictions on movement and communication so they would not reveal what was happening. He exercised control through actual threats of violence, including for not performing to his standards.
The treatment of them was demeaning and degrading, they had feelings of shame through returning to Samoa with “nothing to show for it”, and they deeply regretted the lost opportunity of building a better life, said Walker.
He estimated the total financial benefit to Matamata could have been over $400,000, but the victims could never be fully compensated for their loss.
One victim had spoke of having had the dream to get money back to Samoa to build a home, where all the family and village knew hat was the dream, and he wanted to know from “Auga” why he had been used in such a way and not paid, when the family at home were relying on him.
He had lied about prospects, and Matamata had instead developed his own wealth in New Zealand by owning houses and cars, the victim had said.
“I had wasted my time in New Zealand,” the victim said, telling of how he was glad to be away from “Auga” and to return to Samoa but being ashamed to have nothing to show for it, and having been assaulted by Matamata as Matamata pursued his own grade.
Apart from “not paying a cent” he had the embarrassment of leaving New Zealand after time in a police cell and pleading to an officer to free his hands from cuffs securing him as he was taken to a plane for his return to Samoa. It also affected his status with Immigration New Zealand and his future ability to travel.
Philip said there were issues about whether advice and directions to the complainants were demands for the purpose of exploitation.
Matamata was arrested following a lengthy investigation by Immigration NZ and the police.
Allegations included victims not being paid for work, having their passports taken, and being subjected to physical assaults and threats.
Victims said their movements had been closely monitored and controlled by Matamata, with restrictions on both where they went and who they had contact with.
Immigration NZ assistant general manager Peter Devoy said at the time of the arrest the charges were a result of about two years of detailed investigation, after INZ staff had spoken with one of the workers and became aware of some of the allegations.
“We are absolutely committed to eliminating people trafficking in New Zealand,” he said.
The now banished Minister of Immigration, Ian Lees-Galloway at the time the action demonstrated why this Government has made cracking down on migrant exploitation one of its top priorities in Immigration.
“There is no place for exploitative practices in New Zealand,” he said. “Migrant workers have the same employment rights as all other workers.”
Devoy said some victims have been under Matamata’s “control” for some years and added: It was a “a new low for New Zealand” and was about the practices of a “labour contractor.”
People running the orchards probably didn’t know about the alleged offending, he said.
It was the fourth time INZ had charged someone with people trafficking, but it is the first time the police had become involved, and “the combination of slavery and the treatment of these people sets [this case] apart,” he said.
Detective Inspector Mike Foster, Eastern District Police, said at the time it was an easy choice for police to become involved once INZ talked to the first victim.