They were told they would leave Samoa — a small island nation in the South Pacific — for their larger neighbor, a country with about 25 times the population. Once there, they would work and send the money back home to their loved ones.
Most worked long hours picking fruits from orchards, but they didn’t receive the money they had earned. Instead, it was given to the man who had either directly or indirectly lured them to New Zealand: a Samoan chief named Joseph Auga Matamata.
On Monday, Matamata was sentenced to 11 years in jail for 10 counts of human trafficking and 13 counts of dealing in slaves — the first case in New Zealand where a person has been convicted of both human trafficking and slavery at the same time.
He was also ordered to pay 183,000 New Zealand dollars ($122,000) in reparations to his 13 victims to partly compensate them for the estimated 300,000 New Zealand dollars ($200,000) his family gained from his criminal acts. Matamata has maintained his innocence.
But while Matamata’s sentence brings to a close more than two decades of offending, experts say that his case is just the tip of the iceberg.
They say that although human trafficking and slavery convictions are rare in New Zealand, cases are more widespread than those convictions suggest. And they warn that more people could become vulnerable to trafficking in the post-pandemic world.
A position of trust
As a matai — or chief — Matamata had a position of authority. In Samoan culture, the matai — the person who holds the family chief title — commands significant respect.
But, according to sentencing judge Justice Helen Cull, Matamata abused that trust.
Starting in 1994, Matamata began inviting family members or people from his village in Samoa to come to New Zealand to work and live at his property in Hastings, a city on New Zealand’s North Island where there are a number of orchards and wineries. All were poorly educated, most could not speak English and some could not read.
The first victims were a brother and sister aged 17 and 15 at the time. The brother expected to earn money to send home to his family, while his sister expected to finish her education in New Zealand.
Instead, the brother worked long days on orchards while the sister cooked, cleaned and helped with childcare — and neither were paid for their work. Matamata restricted their movements and physically abused them.
The other 11 victims — who were aged between 12 and 53 at the time they came to New Zealand — had similar experiences, according to the judgment.
In many of the cases, Matamata organized three-month visitor visas for the victims, rather than the employment visas they would need to work legally.
The victims were told not to leave the property without permission, and not to communicate with their families in Samoa unless Matamata permitted it. They were not to communicate with passersby or…