Friday, October 25, 2002

Factory worker details
alleged oppression
by boss in Samoa

By Debra Barayuga

A Vietnamese worker who borrowed $5,000 to be able to work at an American Samoan garment factory said she lived in fear that she would be sent back to Vietnam and would not be able to pay off her debt if she did not follow the factory owner's orders.

Trinh Thi Hao, who lived at the Daewoosa Samoa Ltd. factory compound for two years and seven days, testified yesterday she sometimes resisted but eventually submitted because she was afraid of what could happen to her.

Factory owner Kil Soo Lee of South Korea and two of his managers are on trial in U.S. District Court for allegedly keeping hundreds of Vietnamese and Chinese workers in involuntary servitude at the Daewoosa factory from March 1999 to fall of 2000.

The now-closed factory in the U.S. territory 2,300 miles south of Hawaii had made clothes for J.C. Penney Co. and other retailers before the U.S. Labor Department reported worker abuses.

Lee, Robert Atimalala and Virginia Solia'i are accused of not paying their workers for months, denying them food, restricting their movements and having workers who disobeyed or complained beaten, jailed or deported.

The workers were forced to live in cramped quarters and prohibited from leaving the fenced compound without permission, according to prosecutors.

Hao said she had seen police arrest and handcuff a group of Chinese workers at the factory and believed it could also happen to her.

Hao said she and fellow workers were denied food for two days in March 1999 because they refused to work extra hours without pay when they still had not been paid for previous work. After the second day, she and others left the compound in violation of the rules and begged for food from fishermen.

In September 1999, Hao received a check for $2,274 from the U.S. Department of Labor for back wages allegedly owed by the factory owners, but she was ordered by Lee to sign the check over to him, she said.

Workers who received the checks and did not turn them over to Lee were deported, Hao said.

"If I didn't turn over the money, I would have gone back like the others," she said.

Hao testified that she also had to sign a document saying she agreed to let Lee borrow the money. She said Lee told her that if she signed the document, she could remain and work for three years.

"I realized I had no other options, and my responsibility was to take care of my family, and it's a sacrifice I made for my family," she said.

She was once beaten with a stick by a manager after she intervened when one of the workers on her work line was being dragged outside, Hao said. When she went to comfort the worker who had been struck in the eye, blood was pouring from her injury, Hao testified.

Defense attorneys are expected to cross-examine Hao today.

If convicted on all 22 counts, Lee faces up to 390 years in prison, Atimalala faces up to 80 years and Solia'i faces up to 210 years. The trial is expected to take up to five months.

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