A jury in the first trial in New Zealand to combine human trafficking and slavery charges has been told a respected Samoan leader used trust to abuse and force fellow Samoans to work for nothing.
Joseph Auga Matamata is on trial in the Napier High Court for 11 charges of human trafficking and 13 charges of dealing in slaves over a 25-year period from 1994.
The 65-year-old Samoan national, also known as Viliamu Samu, who lives in Hastings, was arrested in December 2018 after a two-year investigation by Immigration NZ and police.
It's alleged Matamata brought people from Samoa to New Zealand with the promise of a better life for their families by working and earning money in the horticulture industry.
However, once in New Zealand, Matamata did not pay them for the work completed, which often involved long hours for days on end, prosecutors contend.
It's also alleged Matamata took their passports, as well as physically and verbally abusing the immigrants.
In his opening statement, Crown prosecutor Clayton Walker told the jury that police became aware of Matamata's practices in 2017 after one of the complainants went to police after escaping Matamata's custody.
When police went to visit Matamata's address in the Hastings suburb of Camberly, they reported finding another Samoan who had been in New Zealand for 17 months and had worked almost every day, receiving no money for his work.
The man told police he had spent the whole time either working on orchards or living at his property surrounded by a high fence with a lock on the gate.
It’s there, the Crown alleges, he completed household chores for the accused and was told that he wasn't to leave the property or communicate with anyone while out of the house or at church.
If the complainants didn't comply with Matamata's rules they would be physically abused, authorities allege.
One victim said Matamata hit him with power cords and gardening tools until he cried.
The Crown alleges all the victims have similar stories. The complainants endured these rules and abuse, prosecutors said, on the basis that Matamata was considered a "Matai" - a respected chief in Samoan culture.
They respected him and trusted that he would stick to his word of paying them for their work, prosecutors told jurors today.
However, the Crown alleges Matamata abused that power of being a Matai.
When the complainants questioned the whereabouts of their money, Matamata would tell them that they were still in debt to him for the cost of bringing them to New Zealand or that they would be paid when they returned to Samoa, authorities said.
Mr Walker told the court it was a "catch 22" situation for the workers - they didn't like the situation they were in, and realised they weren't being paid, but wanted to wait until they returned to Samoa in case Mr Matamata came through for them.
The Crown says Matamata never intended to pay the workers, who are owed over $400,000 in unpaid wages.
The complainants allege Matamata took and kept hold of their passports while in New Zealand, claiming he needed them to extend their visas, something he would never do.
When flying to New Zealand to start their work with Matamata, he would allegedly tell them to lie to immigration officials and say they were in the country to see family.
Some of the complainants include family members of the accused.
The defence will present its case to the jury later this afternoon.
The trial is set to last five weeks.