New Zealand convicted a Samoan chief of human trafficking and slavery, and sentenced him to 11 years in prison this week.
According to court records, Joseph Matamata had convinced 13 people to move from Samoa to neighboring New Zealand since 1994 with the prospect of work and sending money back to their homeland. A Samoan chief, otherwise known as a matai, Matamata was said to hold the respect of his family and those around him.
Upon arrival, after being taken to a property surrounded by a high wire fence, their passports were seized and were told they needed permission in order to leave or contact their family members. When one teenage girl escaped, she was taken back in a car with her hands and wrists tied.
The victims were then forced into slavery, picking fruits for long hours from orchards. Nearly all profits from their work were given to Matamata, and many of them were given less than $1,000 at the end of their stay for more a year’s work. Those who did not comply were beaten and subjected to fear and intimidation.
Announcing the sentencing, Justice Helen Cull noted how victims felt a sense of shame when they returned home after having “nothing to show for their time away” and being “criminalized for their illegal immigration status.”
“They cannot return to New Zealand for work and many feel this stigma and history will limit their ability to work … for the rest of their lives,” she noted. “Some of the victims are hopeful for their future but many still feel a lot of guilt and pain for what occurred to them at (Matamata’s) hands.”
In a statement after his sentencing, Immigration New Zealand general manager of verification and compliance, Stephen Vaughan, said that Matamata’s actions had gone “against all basic human decency.”
“His breaches of trust, physical abuse, and blatant disregard for the well-being of people he was purporting to help were unconscionable and must be condemned,” Vaughan said.
As part of the sentence, Matamata was also ordered to pay 183,000 NZD ($122,000) in reparations to his 13 victims as compensation for their work. According to Immigration New Zealand investigations manager Carl Knight, the victims were “ecstatic” to learn of their tormentor’s sentencing, adding that the reparations will be “life-changing” for their families.
“They were ecstatic to be honest. They were relieved it’s over as it’s been a long and harrowing ordeal for them,” he said. “These people had to go back to their villages in utter shame without any money whatsoever. They tried to explain … but it didn’t mean anything because they just weren’t believed. It put not only them, but their families, in a whole lot of despair … sometimes for years.”