New Zealand is risking an American rebuke over one of this country's pet aid projects, which brings hundreds of Pacific Islanders here to work for minimum wages picking fruit and grapes, warn high-level US sources.
Wellington sees the recognised seasonal employer scheme as charity, but Washington views it as verging on human trafficking and debt-bonded labour.
This comes as the US State Department's latest international report on human trafficking condemned the use of forced labour on foreign charter fishing boats, exposed by the Sunday Star-Times.
Last week US Human Trafficking Ambassador Luis CdeBaca came with a delegation to talk with government officials, unions and lobby groups.
No statement followed, but sources say the Americans were alarmed at a lack of recognition of trafficking in New Zealand.
The Americans are investigating bonds used to bring minimum wage workers from Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands.
"The burden of illegal costs and debts on these labourers in the source country, often with the support of labour agencies and employers in the destination country, can contribute to a situation of debt bondage," a source said.
Seasonal Solutions Cooperative, the largest importer of seasonal labour, says in its annual report that bringing in seasonal labour gives farmer members of the cooperative a real choice over workers.
"As a consequence, these growers have seen their productivity elevated to unprecedented levels," Seasonal Solutions says.
The company did not return calls for comment on human trafficking.
The Americans also believe trafficking of sex workers – especially from Asia – is taking place.
But Catherine Healy of the Prostitutes Collective told them the collective does not believe this.
"We haven't come across sex workers who are victims of trafficking yet," she said, adding the word trafficking was "such a dramatic catch-all".
"What we are asking for is old-fashioned labour rights.
"We explained that sometimes sex workers are made to work exceptionally long shifts and have their money withheld by some brothel operators."
Healy said some managers and operators are "dreadful to work for" and the Department of Labour should deal with them.
The collective told the Americans it was pleased sex workers had the right to say yes to sex work and that this was getting rid of exploitation.
"[CdeBaca] acknowledged it was important to not conflate prostitution and trafficking, as has been our recent experience in dealing with the American administration and their overall response to sex work."
They capitalised on unclear jurisdictions and difficulties inspecting boats in deep water.
The American delegation told New Zealand officials that slavery at sea remained prevalent and may have increased, and that some owners of Asian fishing fleets and seafood companies were relying on forced labour to harvest ever-diminishing fish stocks.
The Americans said fishing was becoming unsustainable economically, and needed semi-slave crews to survive.
Without a coordinated effort, the enslavement of foreign migrants would continue.