Thursday, June 23, 2005

Owner imprisoned
in ‘slavery’ case

Kil Soo Lee receives a 40-year
jail term based on the harm
he inflicted on workers

An American Samoa factory owner convicted of what federal prosecutors call the biggest "modern-day slavery" case in U.S. history was sentenced yesterday to 40 years in prison.


Kil Soo Lee: He claims in court that he was convicted on lies and fabricated evidence

In February 2003 after a four-month trial, a jury here found Kil Soo Lee, 52, guilty of 14 counts, including conspiracy, involuntary servitude, extortion and money laundering. The case involved 300 Vietnamese and Chinese immigrant workers, the largest number of victims of involuntary servitude, prosecutors said.

U.S. District Judge Susan Mollway said the 40 years, which reflected consecutive terms well above the guideline range, was appropriate given the physical, psychological and financial harm the workers endured and continue to suffer to this day. Lee was facing a range of 30 years to life.

She also noted Lee showed "greed, arrogance and contempt for American law" for disregarding an order by the U.S. Department of Labor that he run a legal workplace and pay the workers back wages.

Lee recruited Chinese and Vietnamese workers, ranging from their early 20s to their 40s, to work in his factory producing garments for major U.S. retailers. The workers incurred large debts to pay export labor companies up to $5,000 each to work at Daewoosa Samoa Ltd. in Pago Pago from March 1999 to November 2000.

Evidence at trial showed Lee controlled when and how much the workers worked, got paid or ate. He punished them for complaining about work conditions and threatened them with arrest, beatings and deportation if they did not follow orders. The average weight of the workers when they left the factory was 76 pounds, with most losing 18 to 25 pounds.

In his first and only opportunity to address the court since he was found guilty, Lee, against the advice of his attorney, claimed he was convicted on lies and fabricated evidence and proclaimed his innocence. His current attorney, Earle Partington, said it was a foregone conclusion that Lee would get a long sentence and has filed a notice of appeal.

Quyen Truong, whose left eye was gouged by a Samoan worker ordered by Lee to attack the Vietnamese workers, said 40 years for her former boss was an appropriate birthday present. She turned 26 yesterday.

She was 21 when she left Vietnam for American Samoa to work for Lee so she could earn money to support her widowed mother and younger sister.

But branded a troublemaker by Lee and his managers because she and other workers dared to complain about their work and living conditions, she was attacked with a PVC pipe after a supervisor noticed she was not working. The fabric had not reached the end of the work line where she was assigned, so she was sitting around waiting.

She was among eight former workers who dredged up painful memories and testified yesterday about what they endured at Daewoosa. Some broke down in sobs as they talked about the nightmares they suffer and how they cannot forget what happened to them.

"When we paid money to come, we were happy to make money. ... In the end we could not even help ourselves or our family," Nguyen said through an interpreter.

Of the approximately 300 workers, 200 have remained in the United States, 100 returned to Vietnam and about 10 returned to China.

A half-dozen workers were arrested and deported early on by Lee to set an example to others.

Robert Moossy, one of three attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Division, said later, "Justice was served, and we're glad the victims are safe."

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