- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2001

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa Doan Phan Cat Tuong kissed her parents and sisters goodbye and boarded a plane from Vietnam to American Samoa.
The 25-year-old brought little with her except a passport, a round-trip ticket issued by Vietnam's state Tourism Company 12, pocket change saved from her $50 per month schoolteacher's salary, and the dream of working in a relatively highly paid job and perfecting her English.
The contract she signed with Tourism Company 12 and Kil-soon Lee, owner of the garment factory Daewoosa Samoa Ltd., guaranteed her $408 per month for three years and three meals a day. By implication, it also provided the worker-safety standards of an American territory operating under the protection of U.S. law.
The promotional video of Daewoosa's facilities had shown a spacious, air-conditioned residence facility beside a shimmering Olympic-size swimming pool. Miss Tuong paid a fortune for the opportunity: $5,000 she borrowed from family members and paid to the Vietnamese government.
Reality set in quickly when she arrived in the tropical heat of American Samoa and immediately had her passport and return ticket confiscated.

Barbed-wire compound

She was housed behind barbed-wire in a dirty compound with rats, cockroaches and armed guards, frequently ate cabbage and rice gruel, slept on a tiny bunk bed with a half-inch mattress beside 36 others, watched as her co-workers were beaten, intimidated and sexually harassed. And none of the workers were paid as promised.
A representative of Tour Company 12 says the workers are fortunate to be exported to an American territory. Vietnam is a very poor country of about 80 million people and a GNP per capita of about $400 per year. The Vietnamese press reports that hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese are sent abroad annually as part of Hanoi's plan to put 1 million workers in overseas jobs by the year 2010.
But the case of Daewoosa, which landed the Vietnamese government in the High Court of American Samoa in a class-action lawsuit filed by 168 Vietnamese workers, may make officials in Hanoi more cautious in their labor-export drive.
Two lawyers based in American Samoa, Virginia Sudbury and Christa Tzu-hsiu Lin, sued Mr. Lee and Tour Company 12. They also defied local government officials who had turned a blind eye.
High Court Chief Justice Lyle Richmond listened to five weeks of trial testimony in February and March and a ruling in the case is pending.

Federal agencies step in

Meanwhile, life has taken a turn for the better for 300 Vietnamese workers this week when U.S. federal agencies including the Justice Department, the FBI, the Labor Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service focussed their attention on American Samoa.
They opened a criminal investigation that led to the arrest of Mr. Lee. He was taken to Hawaii, where he is detained under federal watch.
More than 20 Daewoosa Samoa workers were paroled to the United States, where they can live and work at least until the criminal trial is over. More than 200 workers, given permission to be paroled to the United States, wait in American Samoa for airline tickets out of the territory.
Congressional investigators are looking into whether Daewoosa kept the workers in debt bondage and violated a federal law that bars trafficking in humans. The workers may qualify for protection under a new federal law the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 and might qualify for a "T" Visa, allowing them to live and work in the United States.
The law was designed to protect workers in American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands or any U.S. port of entry who would "suffer extreme hardship involving unusual and severe harm" if deported from the United States.

Regulations not ready

There is one problem: No regulations have been set up to implement the law, so the workers may be unable to seek protection with the T visa.
Advocates are pushing for rules to be developed this year so the Vietnamese workers can benefit.
Workers are relieved that the federal government finally took action. They waited two years, and federal agents stood by, as at least nine workers were jailed and deported by Mr. Lee for being "troublemakers." One worker was beaten so severely she lost an eye; another lost his hearing.
Many others were starved, intimidated, threatened, and forced to eat rancid food that made them ill. Female workers were subject to the sexual and other whims of the owner, who forced them to clip and manicure his toenails, and watched them shower and lie in their cots.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials conducted at least two investigations in 1999 and 2000. They cited 17 violations and assessed $17,470 in penalties.
The violations included "substandard housing and diet; sanitation; electrical, fall, fire and machine-guard hazards; workplace violence; and substandard food."

'Institutionalized violence'

A Labor Department internal report in December said: "Investigators have documented repeat violations and violations that were never corrected after previous enforcement visits, and have documented numerous incidents that indicate a trend of institutionalized workplace violence and corporal punishment by the owner."
The report tells of two Wage & Hour Division investigations in 1999 and 2000 where agents assessed Daewoosa for $349,615 in back wages and $237,140 in penalties. The back wages collected were repaid to workers with a Labor Department check. However, workers told the High Court of American Samoa that Mr. Lee's assistant drove them to the bank, then took the money back.
These federal reports and others that leaked out over a two-year period were not enough to bring immediate action by either local or national governments.
Lawyer Paul Miller of Marshall Ashley PC who represents Vietnamese state firms Tourism Company 12 and International Manpower Supply maintains that only Mr. Lee should be involved in the lawsuit.
Mr. Lee would not comment, citing a language barrier. His attorney, Marie Lafaele, was unavailable for comment, but she maintained in court that the characterizations of her client are "unfair."

Factory has been closed

Meanwhile, the Daewoosa factory remains under the court-appointed receivership of Jim Fones, who opted to close it in mid-January until the case is resolved. And the 200 Daewoosa workers who remain in American Samoa, now unemployed, rely on the churches and community members for food donations until they can be flown to Hawaii.
The factory operated on the South Pacific island under the nose of the American Samoan government and a number of U.S. federal agents, either based in or traveling through the American territory. In the territory's tight-knit population of 58,000, the foreign workers face great odds against getting help from the local government.
Lt. Gov. Togiola Tulafono was the lawyer who signed the incorporation papers for Daewoosa in 1998, and his wife, Mary Tulafono, served on the board as secretary/director of Daewoosa until she was replaced in June.
Mr. Lee's attorney, Aitofele Sunia, is the brother of American Samoa's governor, Tauese Sunia.
Twelve female Daewoosa employees interviewed at the compound claim they could not seek protection from the police because "the police were friends of Mr. Lee and would buy clothes from the factory from him for cheap."
During riots or other disputes, workers report that the police sided against them, even if they had been beaten and hospitalized. Mrs. Lin, one of the lawyers representing the workers in their class-action suit, was arrested on New Year's Eve while visiting her clients in the compound.

Cops get special deals

Vietnamese workers say police officers were friendly with Mr. Lee, the factory owner, coming to the factory for special wholesaled deals on clothes including $15 jackets he sold them for $5.
Special privileges were reportedly bestowed on Daewoosa from the beginning of its incorporation. The bond usually required from businesses operating in American Samoa was waived. Instead, Mr. Lee supposedly had a $10,000 fund to cover the expenses of the nearly 300 workers at the factory should anything happen to the business. Daewoosa also got tax exemptions.
Mr. Sunia, the territorial governor, was out of town and did not return calls inquiring about Daewoosa. However, in the American Samoa News, the island's largest daily paper, he blamed the American Samoa Immigration Board for waiving the bond requirement and issued a memo to it prohibiting the board from granting any more bond waivers.
Mr. Sunia, who is openly hostile to the Vietnamese workers, calling them names in the local press, maintained that their complaints were "bull." He said he frequently visited the factory, even eating lunch there on occasion, and never saw anything wrong with the working conditions or the food.
Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, Democrat of American Samoa and nonvoting member of the U.S. Congress, told Gov. Sunia in a February letter that he was "disappointed" by what he'd learned about the Daewoosa situation, including the fact that the company was required to have a fund of only $10,000 for nearly 300 workers.

Finger-pointing is rife

"At a minimum, Daewoosa should have been required to post a bond that would have covered airfare costs for workers in case of business closure."
Rep. Faleomavaega said that Daewoosa and the Vietnamese contracting agencies "failed to establish a firm, clear and legal understanding of employees' rights, privileges and/or benefits; issues of which party would assume responsibility for wages, food, lodging and airfare to and from American Samoa," and that there was no local government oversight.
Lt. Gov. Tulafono would not comment about his or his wife's involvement with Daewoosa or the bond requirement that was waived. The High Court of American Samoa cleared the couple's involvement with the company.
However, high-placed sources in the federal government say a federal criminal investigation should be opened into Mr. and Mrs. Tulafono's ties to Daewoosa.
Numerous Vietnamese employees interviewed didn't know who sold the clothes they made. The workers do recall, however, sewing on "By Design" labels on clothing. The By Design Web site boasts that the company has $116 million in sales worldwide an 80 percent increase over 1999 to such high-volume retailers as JC Penney, Sears, Target, Casual Corner, May Co., Allied/Federated, Montgomery Ward and Dress Barn.

Retailers also affected

On Feb. 1, Peter McGrath, a vice president and director of quality and sourcing at JC Penney, wrote a letter to Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee in response to an inquiry by that labor-rights organization. Mr. McGrath confirmed that JC Penney did receive shipments from Daewoosa and was made aware by the Labor Department in December of problems with the company.
"We immediately began an investigation and discovered that the supplier in question, a New York-based manufacturer named M. Hidary & Company, had in fact used Daewoosa without our knowledge or approval over a two-month period," he wrote. Mr. McGrath said JC Penney subsequently canceled its contracts with Hidary and pulled the merchandise from its shelves.
Mr. McGrath said the company, under Labor Department pressure, reached a settlement and issued a check to be given to the Daewoosa workers for unpaid back wages.
Mr. Kernaghan said his organization has contacted other retailers who received shipments from Daewoosa to inform them that they may have violated federal law and should help pay the workers' back wages.
Meanwhile, New York garment factory Morgan Cooper awaits decisions by the American Samoa governor and the court-appointed receiver as to whether it can take over Daewoosa's operations.


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