Following a 5 week trial in March, the High Court in Napier, New Zealand has reached the verdict that a Samoan-born chief, 65, is guilty of more than 20 charges related to human trafficking and slavery.
Joseph Auga Matamata, a horticultural contractor, had offenses spanning over 25 years. It is the first time any court in New Zealand has charged someone with both slavery and human trafficking.
Justice Helen Cull described Matamata’s actions as “abhorrent” and ordered him to pay $120,000 reparations to his victims, alongside the crown seizing his assets in the following week to fund such reparations, RNZ reported.
His victims, all of which were Samoan citizens on the island of Upolu, were feared into not alerting authorities due to Matamata’s chief status, the court heard. Matamata faces up to 20 years of incarceration or a fine of $300,000 for his convictions. The sentencing, to take place on May 6, 2020, regards his 13 slavery charges and 10 counts of human trafficking which took place between 1994 and 2019.
The court shared with the public media that the chief had promised them “big money” but ended up taking the cash his victims earned picking fruits from orchards and other working sites. According to BBC News, prosecutors said he had promised his 13 countrymen a better life, many of whom came on 3-month holiday visas. The youngest of the 13, who was 12 years old, amongst others, stayed in New Zealand for years, working for long hours with no pay and was often beaten. (BBC)
The crown claimed there was a noticeable pattern to Matamata’s offenses, to exploit his workers for his “own financial benefit.”Matamata paid for their passports, visas, and flights, however upon arrival were forced to work 7 hours a week while “bags of cash” were given to MAtamata, Crown prosecutor Clayton Walker said (Guardian).
All victims who gave evidence through translators in court said Matamata’s house had a tall wire fence perimeter and a locked gate. They were not allowed to speak to anyone, friends and family included, nor leave without his permission. They were subject to physical and verbal abuse if tasks were completed slowly or not up to Matamata’s standards, which Matamata denied. When one teenager escaped, he was brought back with her hands and wrists tied, Radio New Zealand reported.
Matamata’s lawyers, on the other hand, argued his chief status, matai, meant he could command absolute obedience and had the opportunity to look after his whole family and community. The lawyer also claimed that it is typical in Samoan culture for members of a household to pool their wages together. Matamata further stated that his victims came to New Zealand on holiday, he had no control over who overstayed or ran away, legal records show.
While Matamata’s sentence shows more than 2 decades of offenses, experts warn his case may be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ (CNN). While human trafficking and slavery convictions are rare in New Zealand, it is a more widespread issue underground, as media reports warn that more people may be prone to trafficking in the post-pandemic world (CNN).
Under the New Zealand judicial system, slavery carries a maximum penalty of 14 years incarceration whereas human trafficking charges a maximum of 20 years or a NZ$500,000 fine.